PETER Houston claims he doesn’t look at league tables until January. If so, it means he will have had a pleasant surprise when studying Falkirk’s position for the first time a few days ago.
It is true that he must have known his side would be there or thereabouts given their recent run of six wins in seven matches. It has helped make up for a poor start to the season when even Houston worried if being a Falkirk favourite as a player might not be enough to preserve him.
“You are not a legend for long are you?” he said with a smile yesterday. Now Falkirk are fifth. Not quite high enough to qualify for a play-off place but then they have the benefit of momentum at present. Like tomorrow’s opponents Hibernian, they are one of the form teams in the Championship – Houston being named manager of the month for December recognises this.
He assessed Falkirk’s hopes for the remainder of the season after picking up the award yesterday. Houston is buoyed after being given backing by the board to re-strengthen in the form of three new signings in Aaron Muirhead and Queen of the South pair Mark Kerr and John Baird.
He sees no reason why Falkirk cannot now push on to challenge for second place, agreeing that Hearts can now only throw the title away. “You have to be positive,” he said. “We are three points behind Queen of the South and Hibs and they have better goal difference than us, our goal difference is not great. Rangers are six ahead of them in second. Nine points is a big claw-back but you never know the way things can go. There are a lot of games.”
“Our immediate aim is to get into that top four,” he added. “I don’t want to look too far ahead. I said when I first came in at the start of the season that I don’t look at tables until January – it’s just as well I haven’t!”
Falkirk can begin clawing back their rivals at Easter Road tomorrow. Hibs know the truth in the old saying: “better meddle wi’ the de’il than the bairns o’ Falkirk”. Alan Stubbs’ side have lost both games against Falkirk this season. “I said all along, even when they were going through a sticky spell like ourselves, that Hibs are a good side,” said Houston. “They have excellent players like Scott Allan and Liam Craig. The way they are playing now is more related to Hibs.”
Like Falkirk, Hibs suffered an inconsistent start to the season. “The common denominator was a new manager coming in with players already there and others coming in and then building a shape,” reflected Houston. “He [Stubbs] was putting his stamp on things, as I had to here. No doubt there were a load of doubters out there after our indifferent start to the season. But I am experienced enough not to worry about it. There is always a transitional period when a new manager comes in and they are gaining the trust of the players.”
Houston is glad he agreed to give up a secure job as Celtic scout to return to Falkirk, where he played during two spells in the 1980s and early ’90s. “I was happy doing what I was doing. But the lure of Falkirk, because I have previous here, was too much for me,” he added.
Houston must endure questions about his handling of youngsters following his departure from Dundee United, which he explained at the time was because of the heavy emphasis – too heavy, was the inference – being placed on youth at Tannadice. The recent acquisition of 29-year-old Baird and Kerr, 32, might help confirm the suspicion he is more comfortable with experienced players. However, Houston is upbeat about the young prospects at Falkirk. One, Ryan McGeever, has gone on loan to Arbroath to toughen him up. Another, striker Scott Shepherd, will likely go out on loan over the coming weeks.
“We have some cracking youngsters, but the Bairds and Kerrs and even Aaron Muirhead, who although he is only 24 has played SPL football and got promotion with Partick Thistle, will stand us in good stead,” he said. Given that the subject has turned to youth development, it seems the right moment to turn to the subject of Ian Cathro, amid reports that he might yet have a role to play at Championship rivals Rangers. Houston worked with Cathro at United, after Craig Levein, the then manager, brought the young coach in to work with the academy. “It does not surprise me he has been linked [with Rangers] because I think Ian will eventually get an offer to be a head coach somewhere,” he said. “He is probably still learning at Valencia about working with first-team players with regards to attitudes and egos. He has to make sure he’s learned enough and can go in and handle that side of it.”
Might managing a club like Rangers be beyond a 28-year-old? “It’s a bit young,” said Houston. “Could he handle Bears giving him stick from the side? That might sound ridiculous but it is a big factor. Some people go into their shell. Some people are not used to it. That’s why it helps being an older manager – I am used to the stick!”