AT the end of the 2009-10 season, Falkirk travelled to Rugby Park, with their place in the top flight hanging by a thread. Two games prior to that, they had been denied security by conceding a late goal against fellow relegation battlers St Mirren.
With the Paisley side safe, it was down to a final day head-to-head with Kilmarnock.
“Because of that result, we were caught in the relegation area, where I don’t think we deserved to be at that time,” recalls the club’s technical director Alex Smith. “They only needed to avoid defeat, we needed the win. But I went in confident we would beat Kilmarnock and avoid relegation. And we played so well.”
But it ended in stalemate and Falkirk dropped into the second tier where they have remained since.
Six years on and a similar result in Ayrshire this afternoon would suit Falkirk, who have a one-goal advantage in the Premiership play-off final, thanks to a late, late Will Vaulks’ strike in Thursday’s first leg.
“It’s strange that we have come full circle and we end up back at Kilmarnock with a great chance to go back up. But we still have a lot to do and I don’t want to say too much just now.”
Slow and steady wins the race, and Falkirk have been taking care of things from the minute they were relegated. Arguably, the groundwork had started even earlier than that, though.
“It has been a massive journey for us,” says Smith. “We did say that there would be a period where we would need to rebuild the club and restructure and we had great young managers in Steven Pressley and Gary Holt and Eddie May, who helped create the academy. So we went on a journey and it had to be steady progress and we knew that gradually the opportunity would come and that’s where we are now.
“The structure we have is the one we think is the right one for more clubs to follow. The problem is that too many clubs make too many managerial changes and make too many kneejerk reactions and they respond to the media and public opinion instead of looking at things with a long term plan. At Falkirk we look ahead and if we don’t make it on Sunday then we have a plan to get there eventually. It wouldn’t be a case of everybody getting kicked out the door and us suddenly changing direction, we would keep doing what we have been doing. We stick to the basic principles and have the courage and guts not to be swayed away from them.”
Having embarked on the journey with managerial newbies, rebuilding and consolidating, they knew that an older, more experienced hand needed to take control as they tried to make the leap back to the Premiership. Peter Houston was the man and Smith says credit must go to the manager and his coaching staff. Houston is an astute man-manager and has been there and done it at the higher level, as a coach and as a manager. The fact that he has a great affection for the club has also been key, says Smith.
“There was a shift. We had gone through the spell of developing the academy and the young players and developing the club financially and we had convinced the supporters and we were at the point that we were ready to get back in the SPL but in order to be able to do that we had to bring in a manager who knew the role and knew the game in Scotland, was confident in his own ability to do his job at this level and in the Premier League. It was part of a well thought out plan. We know he could handle this. He has done it at the top level already and we know that if we get up we can develop into a big club and be finishing in the top six, maybe even five or four and we know we could command crowds as big as many up there just now.”
And that is the aim. Smith looks at the clubs who have been occupying berths in the top half of the league in the past few years and believes that if clubs like St Johnstone, Motherwell and the Highland sides can do it, so too can Falkirk.
The rebuilding work has been about vision, patience, passion and community and having got this close, this time around Smith does not want to leave Rugby Park staring at a new season in the second tier.