Confidence and momentum. Typically two problems a new manager has to face when he takes over at a club, though not in the case of Paul Hartley. The recently appointed Falkirk boss watched from the stands as an inherited group of players registered consecutive victories for the first time since July to reach the quarter-finals of the Irn-Bru Cup.
Goals from Conrad Balatoni and Myles Hippolyte in each half did the job for the hosts, who dispatched rivals Dunfermline with surprising relative ease, given the contrasting start each side has made to the Ladbrokes Championship season.
In fairness to the visitors, they were without some key players due to the international break, with Pars boss Allan Johnston saying after the match that they could have postponed the fixture if they wished. However, this won’t detract from the mood in the Falkirk camp, and a new boss who’ll know he’s got a lot of positives to work with.
“Speaking to him in the corridor there, he was happy with what was on show. He was happy with how they played, how they defended and how they created a lot of chances,” said Falkirk technical director Alex Smith. The wise veteran of Scottish football ended his second spell as interim boss at the club with a 100 per cent record, and was serenaded with chants of “there’s only one Alex Smith” at full-time.
“I’ll enjoy that tonight with a wee glass of wine. It’s usually ‘get to f*** Alex Smith’. I’m used to that.”
It was a derby in name but not in nature during the opening half, as highlights were at a premium. Even the opening goal couldn’t fully shake the game into life. Hippolyte’s corner from the right side drifted over to the back post where the onrushing Balatoni was left unmarked to squeeze the ball over the line.
Hippolyte nearly doubled the advantage three minutes later. He did the hard part, spinning away from Lee Ashcroft with a deft move on the edge of the area, before firing his effort high over the crossbar.
It wouldn’t be until the end of the first half for the next chance to arrive. Nicky Clark lifted an attempted lob over the bar from an acute angle after being put in behind the defence by Declan McManus.
Being generous, you could describe the last couple of minutes and injury-time at the end of the first half as a bright spell for the visitors. Unfortunately for the near-1,000 travelling fans, this did not continue into the second period.
They found themselves two down on 58 minutes. Hippolyte did brilliantly to flick the ball over Ashcroft 25 yards from goal. The attacker then won a sprint with Nat Wedderburn before calmly placing it into the bottom corner of the net.
The Falkirk fans had found their voice but a concerning incident let the air out of the stadium moments later. After knocking a long ball up field, keeper David Mitchell crashed to the deck and immediately started signalling for assistance. Oxygen had to be administered before he was taken from the field in a stretcher.
“It doesn’t look good,” added Smith. “He’s away up to Forth Valley Hospital. He’s dislocated his knee. Hopefully they can correct it with a minor operation and he can get back as soon as possible.”
Oddly, it wasn’t until the closing exchanges, with the game seemingly over as a contest, that tensions on the park began to boil over. Following a clash with Mark O’Hara, experienced Dunfermline midfielder Dean Shiels became enraged with his young opponent. Long after the pair squared up to each other, Shiels was still bickering about the incident, mostly with Joe McKee. Refusing to let it lie, Shiels eventually steamed right into the back of McKee in a challenge on the touch-line. It drew a straight red card from referee Steven McLean.
“It was needless, but it might have been some poor remarks made to Deano,” said his manager.