Life after Will Vaulks started in bizarre fashion for Falkirk as they conceded three first-half penalties in a 3-0 defeat by group leaders St Johnstone in the Betfred Cup.
Travelling to Scottish Premiership opponents was always going to be a tough task after losing key player Vaulks to Rotherham on Friday night and their quest for three points to keep them in contention at the top of the group wasn’t helped by the near-habitual pointing to the spot by referee Bobby Madden.
In fairness to the man in the middle, every one of the awards were justifiable, though penalties two and three, which were scored by Danny Swanson after his Danny Rogers had repelled the first one from Liam Craig, were the type of decisions that can often be ignored by officials in crowded penalty areas. Falkirk also felt a sense of injustice when their own appeal for a penalty was turned down with the game still in the balance at 1-0.
“First one, no complaints. Second one, maybe aye, maybe not. The third one, it was soft as **** as far as I’m concerned,” said manager Peter Houston. “Then at the other end we get Steven Anderson going over the top of John Baird, and it should be a foul. We’re looking for consistency but we got no consistency in the penalty decisions today.”
Though angry with the officials, Houston would admit that even though the goals were acquired in what he felt was an unjust fashion, the scoreline did not flatter the hosts who controlled the contest from the off. St Johnstone found particular joy from allowing Danny Swanson to drift inside from the left-wing position, creating space for Brian Easton on the overlap and pinning Falkirk deep in their own half. The two combined for Easton to swing in an 11th minute cross that Steven MacLean headed just over.
The first penalty arrived four minutes later and, out of the three, was by far the most clear cut. Tom Taiwo unwisely slid in on Swanson a yard inside the area. Craig stepped up to take it but had his effort thwarted by Rogers. The on-loan Aberdeen stopper almost saved the second penalty as well. St Johnstone switched their takers and nearly found the same result, but Swanson put more power into his effort and Rogers could only get a partial block on it as the ball rebounded over the line off the underside of the crossbar.
If Falkirk were miffed at that award, with Paul Watson adjudged to have held Joe Shaughnessy around the waist, then they were apoplectic with the granting of a third penalty seven minutes before the half. This time Luke Leahy was penalised for holding Graham Cummins as a cross came into the box. Swanson showed no hesitation in smashing the ball into the corner for his second of the game.
Houston responded to the waves of pressure by switching his team into a flat midfield four as Craig Sibbald joined Baird through the centre. It led to an improvement in the visitors’ performance and they went close three times in the opening 15 minutes after half-time. John Rankin brought out a smart save in Alan Mannus before James Craigen whistled a shot past the top corner from 25 yards. Mark Kerr then had a rare weaving run into the box denied by a last-ditch Shaughnessy block.
Having denied Falkirk a route back into the game, the Irish defender then killed it off by nabbing St Johnstone’s third. He was in the right spot to bundle it home after Rogers saved a close-range overhead kick from MacLean.