The Scottish Championship promotion chase this season has often been characterised as simply a head-to-head battle between Mark Warburton and Alan Stubbs.
That is a contest Rangers manager Warburton should win fairly imminently as his now runaway league leaders look to move 20 points clear of Stubbs’ faltering Hibs outfit tomorrow night. But it is the man whose Falkirk team currently split the notional ‘big two’ at the top of the table who Warburton believes should be in line for the greatest individual plaudits.
As the awards season in Scottish football approaches, Warburton has identified Peter Houston as his manager of the year contender.
“He is doing a great job,” said Warburton ahead of Rangers’ trip to Falkirk tomorrow. “Falkirk have stuck at it and put a run together. They are organised, fit and tough to play against.
“There was talk in November they wouldn’t sustain a challenge, talk in December that they would fall away and some people were surprised when they were still there in January. Now here we are in March and they are still right in the mix for promotion. If you ask me who should be manager of the year, my immediate response is that if I look in my own division, I would say Peter Houston.”
Winners of the manager of the year prizes from outwith the top flight of Scottish football have been relatively rare.
The longest standing award, voted for by the Scottish Football Writers’ Association, has been won by only two second-tier managers – Jimmy Nicholl of Raith Rovers in 1995 and John Lambie of Partick Thistle in 2002.
The more recently established PFA Scotland honour has gone to non-top flight bosses three times – Billy Reid (Hamilton Accies) in 2008, Derek Adams (Ross County) in 2012 and Allan Johnston (Queen of the South) in 2013.
Warburton has been impressed by the standard of his management rivals in the Championship this season, also highlighting the work of Jim Duffy at Morton.
“His side is always organised, always fit and has a great work ethic,” he said. “They are hard to break down. It is really tough. When you play against diligent, focused sides like that, you are always going to be exposed to a counter-attack, to a set-piece. They offer a really tough challenge and all credit to Jim and Peter this season.”
While Warburton has seldom strayed from his mantra of every league fixture being of equal importance to Rangers this season, he admits there is added significance tomorrow night.
“It is a big game and it would be foolish to say otherwise,” he stated. “It is a chance for us to go 17 points clear of Falkirk with a game in hand and 20 clear of Hibs. Hibs do have two games in hand but they have got to win those games, so there is no doubt it is a big game. It is a tough away venue against a good side. But we go there in good form and we know what we have to do.”
Rangers are on a 15-match unbeaten run, their last defeat having been suffered on their previous visit to Falkirk in December when they lost 2-1.
That came during their least convincing period of the campaign, which also saw points dropped in draws against Livingston and Morton, and provided Warburton with a sobering illustration of the expectation levels surrounding his job.
“You get abuse for saying it was an eye-opener but it was described as a ‘mini crisis’ and a ‘slump in confidence’ at the time,” reflected Warburton.
“One guy asked how was I going to pick the players up after drawing at Livingston. But we were eight points clear at the time. It was about getting a sense of perspective. We have to learn. You only learn from your mistakes, anyone in any industry only learns from their mistakes. If we learn we will be OK, if we don’t learn then we’ve got a problem.
“We just laughed at it being called a crisis. If we were fifth in the table and eight points behind and delivering a poor level of performance, then quite rightly it’s a crisis. But it wasn’t the case.”