It took 18 years for Falkirk manager Peter Houston to fulfil his vow of returning to the club he loves, finds Moira Gordon
PETER Houston has always believed that hard work can mask a multitude of sins. He assumes that played a part in earning him cult-like status at Falkirk as a player and served as a solid foundation for an enduring relationship that has stood the test of time.
But while the manager and the fans are now preoccupied with thoughts of silver, at the beginning it was ginger that united them.
Houston said: “My relationship was always good with the supporters because I was always a trier on the pitch. I think that’s why they took to me. They always knew I was giving my all and I always try to get that into my own players.
“I remember a seven-a-side tournament on the astroturf at Brockville one day. A team called the Housty Hardcore entered and they all turned up with their hair sprayed ginger! So I don’t know if it developed from there or whatever. It certainly wasn’t because I was the best player in the team or anything like that. It was just the big mop of ginger hair – and they were probably just taking the p*** out of me!”
The carpet of red hair is gone but, heading back to Hampden, hoping to emulate the success he enjoyed in the same competition while he was Dundee United manager in 2010, the work ethic is as strong as ever.
At the start of the season, after nearly two decades, he returned to the club he has served as a player and a coach, as well as working in the commercial department, before he left to earn his managerial stripes.
He jacked in a job he loved, scouting around Europe for Celtic, to do so and says it is unlikely any other offer could have enticed him to make that decision. But Falkirk is in his heart and there remained unfinished business.
When he left all those years ago, to join Jim Jefferies’ coaching set-up at Hearts, he always planned to return. “At that time I knew nothing on the coaching side, I was just dipping my toe in the water,” he added.
“I said if I had to go from here to learn so I could eventually one day come back as manager that’s what I’d do. And that was the truth. I said when I came back it took me 18 years for this to happen.”
There is a degree of loyalty and an endurance in his postings that hails from another era of the game. While others come and go, collecting clubs like they are Panini stickers, he likes to see a task through. “I spend a lot of time at clubs if you look at my history. I spent a lot of time at Falkirk, albeit broken by a short spell at Dumbarton. I was at Hearts for eight and a half years with the youths, reserves, assistant and caretaker. Leicester City was the only job I have been sacked from, but then I came back up the road and spent seven and a half years at Dundee United. So once I am in a place and I get a feel for it there is no rush for me to leave. That’s why it took so long to get back here.
“I’d be more than happy to stay here and see out my time as a manager. The important thing for me is getting this team to the top division – that would be huge for me. And I’d be happy to let young ones take over from me.”
Back in management, in the posting he wants to be his last, he had to reacquaint himself with an environment he had only been casting cursory glances at since he swapped that role for one of a scout. He also had to familiarise himself with a level of the game he had not been involved in while chasing Europe and silverware at previous clubs.
It meant long days watching games, digesting information, getting to know the players he inherited and meeting targets and agents as he assembled his squad. He then spent hours on the training ground, imprinting his style and his tactics on the team, and drip feeding them statistics and insights into their opponents. “When I was working for Dundee United, I could tell you anything about any Premier League team. I could tell you what formation they could play, what formation they were likely to play, and what they could change to during games. That is what I like to know.”
But even more importantly, he likes to know he can rely on the men he selects. They are the same guys who defied the odds and a near 90-minute onslaught in the semi-final to deny Hibs and extend their season a month beyond the natural finishing point.
“I have loved the first season,” said Houston. “But it has been tough. I have a bunch of boys who are not egotistical, they are team players. They have given me everything I have asked for and in some cases more. I am disappointed we didn’t make the play-offs but if we had made the play-offs and also reached the cup final the legs would have fallen off us before the final.”
Throughout the past few weeks, they have had some rest, some bounce games and last week headed south to hone the match sharpness against Burnley and Swansea sides before the final run-in to Saturday’s showcase and, having been there before, against Ross County with Dundee United in 2010, and found a winning formula, he plans to tap into that experience.
“It’s a huge benefit to use my experiences of that final,” he said. “The thing with managers, when something works for you, you don’t forget it. Back then, the Monday and Tuesday was about a lot of video stuff because our players didn’t know the Ross County players from a different division but fortunately I’d seen them about six or seven times myself, seen all their set plays, documented them. The Thursday and the Friday was more tactical.”
There was an edginess to proceedings, though. “The boys were so on edge, wondering who was going to play. I was taking training and I had to stop a couple of sessions early because they were so competitive and all falling out. I ended up naming the team on Thursday morning and it calmed the whole thing down. It wasn’t a masterstroke, it was just lucky.
“But my plan for next week is the same and then we’ll head to Mar Hall. We stayed at Westerwood for the semi at Dundee United, and Mar Hall for the final, and funnily enough, the same thing’s happening this time. The thing is, Inverness phoned Mar Hall the day after us – so 1-0 to us!”
Undoubtedly Falkirk are the underdogs against a team which finished third in the league above them but if they win, some would assume it would top all of Houston’s previous accomplishments. Despite his love for Falkirk, he wouldn’t agree.
“My best day in football was that day [in 2010] and winning it with [Dundee United]. That weekend was unforgettable and I want these Falkirk players, directors, staff etc, etc to live what I lived that weekend. I would not disrespect Dundee United by saying it would be better because of my connections. What I will say is that if it is the same it will be absolutely superb.”