THERE will be no beef from Peter Houston if he loses out to John Hughes in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final. Not when the Falkirk manager has such regard for how his long-time confrére and Inverness Caledonian Thistle counterpart transformed his playing career by beefing up.
Houston was a veteran, cult hero of a striker at Falkirk in 1990 when he first met Hughes, then recruited from Swansea City as a pretender for his place in the side. When, according to Houston, it turned out that the new signing “couldn’t trap a bag of cement”, and started to get “a rough time from the fans,” the “genius that is big Jim [Jefferies]” switched him from centre-forward to centre half” where Hughes proved “absolutely sensational”.
The bluff Leither did so by becoming buff. In doing so, he demonstrated even at that early stage of his playing career an innovative streak that has followed him into management – and has remained vivid to Houston for close on quarter of a century.
“Yogi actually set up a gym,” the Falkirk manager recalled yesterday. “I don’t know where he got the weights. He probably stole them from Leith. But the club couldn’t afford to bring all the stuff in, so he did it himself. The young lads – guys like Martyn Corrigan – really bought into it. He always had a smile on his face and he was different class for Falkirk.
“He is exactly the same now as he was then – his enthusiasm and his willingness to work hard. Jim used to say the best thing he did as manager was get me out the team and get big Yogi in. I have huge admiration for him. I want to win this cup desperately, but, if I don’t, then I’ll be happy for Yogi as a person. He is a great guy and his philosophy has been good for the game and something he always tries to implement.
“During one of his recent awards speeches, he said that I’ve already won the Scottish Cup, so it’s someone else’s turn. Well, he has two manager of the year awards [with the PFA Scotland and Scottish Football Writers’ honours], so me winning the cup would even trophies up at 2-2.”
Houston, though, is less concerned about what it would mean personally for him to win the Scottish Cup on Saturday. Following his 2010 success in charge of Dundee United, the decider against Inverness provides him the opportunities to become only the the third man to win the trophy with two different clubs; Jock Stein and Alex Smith currently the only members of that exclusive club. However, the 56-year-old is more interested in what a first Scottish Cup win for Falkirk in his lifetime would mean for club and local community.
“It would be lovely to bring the trophy back for the first time since 1957. I would love my players and the people of this town to experience what I saw in Dundee, with the streets and the town square filled with fans. I’ve told the players they have so much to look forward to if they can win it. This place would erupt. There were nearly 1000 people there for tying a knitted scarf around a steeple the other night. Bloody hell! But that just shows you how much this town has bought into the final.
“I have to credit the fans and the town for promoting it really well. The commercial guys have done a superb job in bringing money in. Our suits are sponsored, our ties are sponsored, our pre-cup final trip to Mar Hall and our trip to Swansea last week have been sponsored.”
Houston could have weighed in with a sponsored silence after the many hours he has spent quietly contemplating his team selection for Hampden. The Falkirk manager is faced with a dilemma he did not encounter five years ago, with Rory Loy having put himself through the mill to be fit for the final after missing the last three months with a stress fracture.
Houston is convinced that if Loy, who has signed a pre-contract agreement with Dundee, had remained fit, his strike partnership with the cup-tied John Baird would have earned the Championship fifth-placed side a play-off position. Now Houston has to be convinced that Loy can help earn his team a Scottish Cup. No easy feat when the former Rangers youth’s last competitive outing came in the quarter-final victory over Queen of the South on 6 March.
“I’ll clear my head,” said Houston. “I am 75 per cent clear on what I am going to do. I just want to sleep on it again. We’ll see how he is over the next couple of days. If I got 75 minutes out of him from the start, I would probably settle for that because we do have some good young players like Botti Biabi, big Taylor Morgan, young Scottie Shephard.
“We’ll miss Baird because he is cup-tied, but that is something we can’t change. It might be really important at the start of the game that Loy is with us, not only for the boost that would give his fellow players but for the fans. That’s what’s going through my head as well.
“He did two weeks at St George’s Park [rehabilitation centre] prior to last week down in Swansea with us. . They battered him fitness-wise. And the last two weeks have been about trying to work on his sharpness, which is obviously a bit of a problem when he hasn’t played for so long.
“He’s keen to start but I’ll only do it if I am 100 per cent certain that he’s not going to get a kick and come off after five minutes. He’s been desperate to get back. I think he thought his Falkirk career was over when we got through the semi-final, but his attitude and commitment since he signed that pre-contract has been exemplary. It happens to players now, it’s part of football.
“He has worked his tail off for Falkirk and he was almost in tears when he got injured thinking he was going to miss the semi-final. He always felt the big occasions passed him by in many ways.” Houston is pulling out all the stops to prevent this final passing his club by.