Five reasons for Falkirk's dreadful 2017/18 campaign so far
The Bairns went into the season as favourites behind United to lift the second tier crown, but dispensed with manager Peter Houston after only two months. What has gone wrong at the Falkirk Stadium?
An imbalanced squad
Peter Houston went a bit centre-back crazy towards the end of his spell with Falkirk. He already had Aaron Muirhead, Peter Grant, Paul Watson and Luca Gasparotto on the books, but still signed Jordan McGhee and Conrad Balatoni anyway. In fairness, those two have arguably been the most competent defenders at the club this term, especially Balatoni, but the team desperately needed fixing in other areas, even within the back-line.
McGhee has often been used as a full-back, similar to his time at Hearts. This is because Falkirk only have one natural left-back, 18-year-old Tony Gallacher. Contrary to reports linking him with Barcelona last year, the defender isn’t quite good enough to play consistently in Scotland’s second tier. There’s also the issue of right-back, where Muirhead is the first-choice option despite obviously looking like a centre-back out of position.
Then there are the other areas of the squad which need addressed, speaking of which...
Lack of creativity in midfield
Craig Sibbald has been injured but for all of four games in this campaign, though he wasn’t exactly at peak form when he was in the team. The midfielder had a stand-out season last term, scoring ten goals and generally performing to a higher consistency than he’s managed since breaking into the side as a 16-year-old. However, he then found in the summer that no bigger club was willing to part with the compensation fee required to secure his registration from Falkirk, so he grudgingly returned and signed a new deal. Falkirk fans will be adamant that it shouldn’t matter and he should give his all etc, but that kind of uncertainty and frustration, especially when played out over a couple of months, must mess with a player’s head.
Without Sibbald in the team there’s a glaring lack of fitness elsewhere. When both are fit, the first-choice pairing of Mark Kerr and Tom Taiwo marries two players with defensive, or at least deep-lying, attributes in the centre of the park, while there’s inconsistent play from the wings.
Alex Harris is still trying to rediscover his mojo on the wing, often seeming to lack confidence when things go against him or the team. Self-belief is not something which Myles Hippolyte is short of, but even though he’s a noted match-winner he’s too inconsistent to carry the burden of the creative input on his shoulders. James Craigen, meanwhile, has showed flashes but he too hasn’t won over the fans, especially when played out on the flank.
Surprisingly poor play from the forwards
At the beginning of the season McBookie were offering a special: 20/1 on Falkirk to win the league and Nathan Austin to finish top goalscorer. Seeing as Falkirk winning the league would require a striker to fire close to 20 goals, and with Austin as an obvious candidate, it seemed like an attractive offer (hint: if this writer ever gives you betting tips, just ignore). Though he missed three months with injury last term, he did impress when fit and finished the season strongly, netting six times in his last 12 games. He then continued that form into this term, scoring in each of his first four matches. Then his form fell off a cliff. He’s scored exactly once in the 15 games since.
Looking around the rest of the striking corps, it doesn’t get much better. Rory Loy, having starred for the club in his previous spell, was supposed to be the missing piece which would help Falkirk get over the hump and seal promotion, but he’s brought his poor Dundee form with him to Grangemouth. Personal issues have played a part, but it’s unlikely that things are going to get much better for the attacker, who’s yet to score, seeing as his new manager is the very man who ran out of patience with him at Dens Park and shipped him on loan to St Mirren.
Kevin O’Hara continues to show promise for a 19-year-old, while Lee Miller still brings something to the squad in his 34th year, though neither can be relied on to spearhead the attack over the course of a season.
It all comes back to that. Falkirk fans were critical of Peter Houston’s dealings in the transfer market before this past summer and their concerns came to fruition this term. While they still have a team which should be performing better than ninth in the Scottish Championship table, looking around the squad there is a lack of quality when compared to some of the other teams in the title race.
This criticism extends beyond those who were brought in, with Watson, Kerr and Joe McKee all given contract extensions at the tail end of last season and have yet to justify those decisions. They have lost a lot of talent in recent seasons - Blair Alston, Will Vaulks, Luke Leahy - but it’s up to the manager to replace such players with quality. That’s how you survive in Scottish football. Even in the case of guys like Bob McHugh and John Baird, two players fans weren’t particularly unhappy about seeing go, their output hasn’t been replaced sufficiently.
Paul Hartley will likely have to rip up this Falkirk side and start again, shaping it in his own image. Bairns fans better hope he performs similar wonders to what we saw at Alloa Athletic and the first half of his stewardship with Dundee, and not the ferry-load of undersized centre midfielders and oft-injured centre-backs he recruited towards the end of his stewardship at Dens.
Fans are hoping for the best, but most are already questioning the wisdom in signing attacking midfielder Louis Longridge on loan from Hamilton to fix their striking woes.
Hartley is still learning about his new squad
Through six games, Paul Hartley has used six different starting XIs and made 15 changes across those matches, winning none of those. Meanwhile, Alex Smith came into a caretaker role between Houston’s departure and the former Celtic and Hearts midfielder’s arrival, winning both of them while keeping clean sheets.
Having managed in the Premiership for the previous three seasons, Hartley would not have been familiar with a number of faces in the Falkirk dressing room and it seems he’s having to learn on the fly. While there’s probably too many faults with the squad for any manager to immediately turn them back into promotion contenders, results might have been better in the interim had someone like Smith, who has an intimate knowledge of the players, stayed on. Of course, this is a moot point as the 77-year-old technical director had no intention of doing so.
Hartley has already identified two players he’s got no use for in the immediate future, sending out Scott Shepherd to Edinburgh City and Gasparotto back to Morton, both on loans. Expect a lot more movement before the end of January. Only after then can we have a true reflection of whether Falkirk replaced Houston with the right man for the job.