If, in the airbrushed world of modern football, it is still possible for a new and sour club rivalry to form, this cup fixture had the necessary credentials. There was geographical proximity – nine miles of Union Canal towpath link Linlithgow to Falkirk, to use a vintage measurement worthy of these two old settlements. Further, a narrative of big against small and grit against timidity is decipherable in both civic and sporting regards: Falkirk the tough and swelling town with its team not so long ago Premier League tenants, versus Linlithgow, a frilly burgh of artisan bread and the homely sixth-tier Rose.
Such antagonisms, of course, cannot be forced. Plus, footballing animosity needs the kindling of regular and fractious meetings. Only numbered marbles brought these two into contact this time and the idea of them playing in the same division is a stratosphere away. Even so, when one Rose supporter chided Falkirk’s Mark Durnan with the words “This’ll be a league game soon, number 5. Get used to it”, such a possibility seemed momentarily less impossible.
Perhaps it was the headiness of cup football. Perhaps it was the way the home side ran their opponents so close for so long. Perhaps he’d drunk from the Union Canal before the game.
His mordant cry was rooted in Falkirk’s current malaise. Last season, they were relegated to League One. This time out there has been a clumsy and fainthearted promotion campaign.
With their size and squad, the Bairns should be runaway leaders. Instead, they have hobbled like sad dogs in a rescue centre pen. A week ago, manager Ray McKinnon, a B&M Jose Mourinho, was sacked by a board loathed among much of the Falkirk support. His temporary replacements are Lee Miller and David McCracken, joint interim coaches. The days of caretaker managers, with that term’s pleasant imagery of whistling janitors moving magnets around a tactics board with a mop, are now sadly numbered.
Miller and McCracken (‘Criminal Defence Solicitors – Legal Aid Cases Undertaken’?) were lucky to make their managerial debut at Prestonfield. It is a mesmeric little place, tidy and yet rustic, a scaled-up model village football ground. A hotpotch of moulting trees preside over a long sideline terrace. Its occupants bay for the Rosey Posey as if cheering on their children on schools sports day. Followers of Falkirk were spread behind one goal, revelling in the novelty of standing on a grass bank bracketed by tall conifers. “Sack the board” they sang, as if in warning to anyone wishing to claim a carnival atmosphere.
The interim duo’s encouraging shouts of “work it”, “shield it”, “on his toes”, “round the corner” and, helpfully, “forward” pushed Falkirk to a busy start. They nudged the ball around and chased down everything. Linlithgow’s goalkeeper, Michael McKinven, wore the shocked and bemused expression of a man who had just received bad news at the cash machine. After eight minutes, the ball reached their left-back, Kev McKinlay, a few yards from the centre-circle in his own half. Combative, tattooed and muscular, McKinlay looks like the window cleaner chosen to front a local charity’s nude calendar. On this occasion, he was outfought by Declan McManus. McManus found Conor Sammon, Sammon found the far corner of McKinven’s goal. 1-0 to Falkirk.
Then, a true cup-tie moment. Rose sprawled forward and won their first corner of the game.
Scurrying Owen Ronald jogged over to take it. He teased the ball straight on to the forehead of Ross Allum. Allum brushed a gentle header to the back post where the waiting striker Tommy Coyne nodded into the net. Prestonfield erupted in its own mild way. The Rose team mobbed Coyne. He deserved his moment – all evening he chased and harried, even if his casual demeanour frequently gave the impression of a band’s guitarist reluctantly ambling back on stage for an unwanted encore.
Parity did not endure. Fifteen minutes before half-time, Sammon scored again. The goal arose from one of several occasions on which home defender Pat Scullion seemed afraid to go near the Irishman. Perhaps he feared that the two men’s bald heads would reflect in the floodlights, blinding onlookers.
For much of the second half, Rose chased the game and Falkirk swatted them back. Then, two late away goals occurred with crushing inevitability. It bestowed an unwarranted sheen upon the scoreline. Linlithgow had competed. Owen Ronald sulked. These were not the headlines he had written in his sleep.
Back in town, near the railway station, two teens approached each other. One wore a maroon scarf, the other a dark blue version. A tense flashpoint, perhaps? “Fair play, mate” said the Linlithgow fan. “Good luck for the rest of the season” replied the other. The Old Firm this will never be, and there is no sadness in that.