Falkirk FC demise: From cup finals, Europe and beating Rangers to League One laughing stock - where did it all go wrong?

Six weeks ago Falkirk were six points clear in League One, odds-on for the title. On Tuesday night, after a 2-0 defeat at Airdrie, they finished fifth in the final standings with hopes of automatic promotion passed up and their route via the play-offs gone.

Blair Alston looks to the ground after Airdrie's second goal consigns Falkirk to another year in League One. Picture: Michael Gillen

It has been an incredible short-term collapse in form, with one point from a possible 18 over their final six matches.

Go back further, 12 years ago, Falkirk were contesting the Scottish Cup final, while midway through that period was another visit to Hampden for the 2015 final and a battling team sprinkled with homegrown players.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Now they face a third season in League One and another squad overhaul imminent.

Thomas Scobbie, Scott Arfield, Carl Finnigan and Brian McLean line up for the inaugural Europa League qualifier - Falkirk's first time in European competition in 2009. (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Many are asking how it came to this? It’s too simplistic to lay the blame on one decision, act or individual. It’s too easy for on-lookers to question the dismissal of Peter Houston four years ago, or for angry fans to make managerial bogey-men of past bosses.

In those 12 years there have been seven changes in chairman, nine in the managers’ office and three drops in league status. There has been a cacophony of voices, different approaches and alternative ideas as Falkirk have slipped from Europa League entrants in 2009 to fifth in Scotland’s third tier – their lowest point since the 1970s.

Managers

“Three fantastic years then six bad weeks,” Peter Houston lamented at the time of his departure as Falkirk manager in September 2017, frequently suggested as a turning point by fans outwith Falkirk when viewing a spell where the team enjoyed a Scottish Cup run, play-offs and high-profile wins against Rangers, Hibs and Hearts.

2019 saw Falkirk relegated under Ray McKinnon. Picture: Michael Gillen.

But despite his popularity and success, there was a feeling of an era drawing towards a close. It was expected Houston would move on – hopefully on a high at the fourth time of asking. The concerning start to the season with three points from the first seven league games had fans on edge – particularly after the previous highs and a play-off near-miss just a few months earlier.

With sporting director Alex Smith planning on retiring – one suggestion for the fan favourite moving into a role ‘upstairs’ and handing team affairs to assistants James McDonaugh and Alan Maybury seems retrospectively convenient. It could have bridged the desire for change with continuity of a previously successful management.

Instead, for the club which deployed Scotland’s first pitch-side hot-tub, Falkirk pulled the plug, brought in a whole new regime and advanced a strategic restructure designed to bring change - only not the one anticipated.

Subsequent managers have been unable to replicate Houston's success with Paul Hartley’s side struggling then Ray McKinnon’s being relegated from the Championship and rookie duo Lee Miller and David McCracken losing their jobs after letting a six-point lead slip this term.

Gary Holt returned to Falkirk as sporting director and assuming interim control of the first team following Lee Miller and David McCracken's departure. (Picture: Michael Gillen)

Restructure

Falkirk’s vaunted Academy system had become their saving grace following their relegation from the top division in 2010 under Eddie May and Steven Pressley.

Unable to gain promotion at the first attempt, Pressley was forced to play youngsters such as 16-year-old Craig Sibbald and 17-year-olds Jay Fulton and Stephen Kingsley in a squad still expected to challenge, supplemented by free transfers like David Weatherston and Farid El Alagui.

Despite meek years, the team lifted the Ramsdens Challenge Cup, reached the League Cup semi-finals and were helped off-the-field by selling Murray Wallace to Huddersfield and adding another six-figures to previous departures of Ryan Flynn and Scott Arfield.

Peter Grant scored in the Scottish Cup final but was on the losing side (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

It reaped rewards financially, and in reputation, with current Rangers sporting director Ross Wilson a driving force behind the scenes for talent development.

The club later entered an SFA pilot with neighbouring clubs to form Forth Valley Academy. Now it is no more, though the club is rebuilding the foundations to restore a present-day youth pathway.

Unwilling to fulfil the costly requirements of Project Brave's elite grading system, it was decided in December 2017 to abandon academy involvement altogether – despite fans offering funding to keep their proud history of youth development functioning.

Resources would back a ‘Pathway to the Premiership’ scouting network picking up the ‘best of the rest’ released from England’s academies, delivering a patchwork of players for Hartley - sourced from Brighton, Watford and Sunderland allied to others from Tamworth and Hereford. They combined to form an under-performing team that was ultimately relegated from the Championship, despite McKinnon’s subsequent squad clear-out.

Ditching the Academy costs to supplement a first-team promotion push has not produced Premiership football, but instead funded a steady turnover of squad rebuilds in the dressing room, without the continuity any player pathway could produce.

Fans

Subsequent managers have been unable to replicate the relative success of Peter Houston (Picture: Michael Gillen)

Now, fifth, managerless and facing year three in League One, disconnect is a common complaint running through the Falkirk fan-base – a still significant support in Scottish football terms, particularly for the level.

Where once there were quirky competitions to watch games from the pitchside cranes, sofas and hot-tubs, the fans are locked out of the ground, watching games online and expressing their frustrations on social media and forums. The popular Pie and Bovril platform experienced server issues at full-time in Airdrie on Tuesday night as many moved to vent their spleen after years of growing angst on the pitch.

They support a club which has sensibly erred on the side of financial caution since seeing off provisional liquidation in the late-1990s without blowing their budget on unsustainable or risky promotion pushes, but equally one that was competing in Europe just 12 years ago. They backed a fan-ownership campaign in 2019 and saw another takeover fall flat.

After watching rebuild after rebuild they have grown frustrated.

Much hope is now placed in the investment and experience of ex-Stoke City director Phil Rawlins and wife Carrie – formerly involved with Orlando City in the MLS – to turn the tide with the next rebuild and salvage a club which has slid to its lowest ebb.

Read More

Read More
5 reasons Falkirk fans were happy with the sacking of co-managers Lee Miller and...

Get a year of unlimited access to all The Scotsman's sport coverage without the need for a full subscription. Expert analysis of the biggest games, exclusive interviews, live blogs, transfer news and 70 per cent fewer ads on Scotsman.com - all for less than £1 a week. Subscribe to us today

Co-managers Lee MIller and David McCracken during a Falkirk training session at The Falkirk Stadium on April 01, 2021, in Falkirk, Scotland. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.