FALKIRK’S exploits in the mid-90s hinted at a rather salubrious future after 1995’s fifth-place finish in the Premier League and an appearance in the 1997 Scottish Cup final, but although the town’s famous wheel is now well and truly turning, the club’s own cogs have creaked since the turn of the century.
After the extensive pre-season preparations now favoured by most clubs, John Hughes’ side were relieved to finally begin their 2004/05 campaign yesterday at Somerset Park in the Bell’s Cup, but they did so still as a team with potential unfulfilled. This is largely a consequence of the club reaching the gates of heaven by winning the First Division in 2003 and the promotion place that comes with it, only to be told their name was not on the SPL bouncers’ list of favoured guests.
Brockville, with it’s nostalgic location tucked behind houses and shops and its floodlights peering between buildings on a winter’s night, has long been lamented as the reason for the stalling, some might say regression, at Falkirk because of its lack of 10,000 seats. But with the ramshackle ground now consigned to sepia-tinted memory banks and that ridiculous SPL rule having been relaxed to a more realistic 6000 seats, the surroundings are in place to permit top-flight football at the club’s long-awaited new ground.
For John O’Neil, Premierleague veteran and Scotland international who, at the age of 33, is now a mainstay in Hughes’ side, it is a regret that the imaginatively-named Falkirk Stadium will not be christened by an SPL fixture this weekend. The former Hibs midfielder, whilst grateful to Stenhousemuir’s hospitality last season, cites the asperous surface at Ochilview as damaging to Falkirk’s promotion pursuit, as dropped points at their temporary home culminated in a fourth-place finish.
The structure off the field now coherent, the question is whether Falkirk have what is required on the park to take that elusive step into the SPL next May, one they last successfully lunged at 10 years ago.
"Definitely," is O’Neil’s unequivocal response. "Our squad is looking good and I’m convinced we are promotion material. I thought that last year too, but really playing at Ochilview wasn’t conducive to the type of football we like to play. The manager likes us to get the ball down and pass it, and the players he has brought in have all had that philosophy. But with the new stadium it’s all there for us.
"The difference in surface at Westfield [where the stadium is located] compared to Ochilview is like night and day, and I think we dropped points last season because we couldn’t play the game which suited us best. Maybe we should have adapted to the conditions and been a bit more direct, even lumped the odd high ball, but it’s not really our style and that comes from the manager."
Having seen his side struggle to bulge the net last season, both at Ochilview and on their travels, Hughes realised refreshing the attacking line was essential. Falkirk scored just 43 league goals in total, 24 less than champions Inverness and 21 fewer than runners-up Clyde, so Hughes has turned to former Rangers under-21 striker Darryl Duffy, a player with Champions League experience arriving on a free from Ibrox, and Andy Thomson, another who cost nothing from Partick Thistle.
But it is the intriguing capture of Portuguese Under-21 cap Pedro Moutinho, courted by Falkirk’s player-coach Russell Latapy through his Portuguese connections and persuaded to sign a one-year deal, which may prove to be the most profitable. The 24-year-old comes from FC Penafiel in his homeland, and although that name won’t register with most Falkirk fans, his flair and creative influence are likely to ensure an instant impression in his roaming attacking role.
O’Neil has trained and played with Moutinho throughout pre-season and intimates the offer of something different from his new colleague. "Pedro has looked really good. His sharpness and skill are great to watch and I think he can surprise a few defences," he noted. "We struggled to score goals last season and, whilst I’m not going to put the blame on anyone, the guys up front now should solve that. The forward line is really the only area we’ve changed, so we should benefit from a bit of continuity too."
It is a view with which manager Hughes concurs. He said: "Pedro has really shown during pre-season that he has the quality we are looking for in a striker.
"He knows the game, his movement is excellent and his hold-up play is very impressive. He will now put the pressure on Andy Thomson and Darryl Duffy. I don’t think it will be too long until he’s giving me a selection headache, but compare that to the situation last year and it’s one I’m delighted to have."
Moutinho’s intent to cement his reputation with Falkirk is exemplified by the fact that his girlfriend will soon join him in Scotland. She currently has exams to finish in Portugal, but her arrival will certainly smooth the transition for her boyfriend, and any smile on Moutinho’s face will be replicated around the Westfield dressing room as O’Neil, Latapy and the rest cling to their positive philosophy for the season ahead.
"Russell is a similar age to me but I think being around him is making me old," joked O’Neil. "I’ve certainly given up going on nights out with him. I’m too old for all that. But we all enjoy being at the club, and personally I have to enjoy every training session because at my age there won’t be that many more. The manager plays his part as well and we’re really just desperate now to get the new season started. We all believe we have a real chance of winning this league."
Most will recall Hughes as an uncompromising centre-back who never took a prisoner in his entire career with Falkirk, Celtic and Hibs amongst others.
Imparting a cursive style to his players should be construed as somewhat out of character then, but not to O’Neil, and not to anyone who attended Ochilview last season to form an opinion on Falkirk’s play.
"Anyone who has seen us won’t be surprised to hear that our approach comes directly from the manager," added O’Neil.
And you can be certain that any celebrations should Falkirk finish top of the First Division pile this term will also be led by Hughes.