Peter Houston knows that people have been waiting for his team to crumble. The assumption was that when the Championship pressure was turned up, they would cave to the might of Rangers and Hibs and have to settle for a third place at best. But so far his squad have stood strong.
While Rangers have wrapped up the league title, below them things have ebbed and flowed, and mind games have been played. But as they head into the final round of fixtures, it is still Falkirk who have the upper hand. Victory over Morton on Sunday should be enough to guarantee them second place and fast track them to the play-off semi-finals, with the hope of a place in the Premiership remaining the ultimate goal. Against Queen of the South, Hibs have to better their result, or at the very least equal it and hope they can get the extra three goals they require to tip the goal difference their way.
“With regards to crumbling… if we crumble on the last day it will be the first time we have crumbled all season,” stated Houston. “I genuinely don’t listen to all that crap. But I think a lot of people throughout the season have been waiting for us to crumble. They’ve said it’s been a great season so far, but come the end it’ll be Rangers and Hibs. Well, no it isn’t. That’s not the way it has happened. I credit our players and the group we have got for our consistency. We don’t always play well but we have this knack of being able to grind out results. That’s all down to character and desire.”
While the Easter Road players are now being scrutinised for mental and physical frailties, their rivals for second place have shown a never-say-die spirit and they have done so on a fraction of the budget of the teams they are sandwiched between.
As well as offering the successful team momentum, a second-place finish would also mean two less play-off matches, with third due to battle it out with fourth-place Raith Rovers before they can even have a shot of righting matters and earning the right to face the Premiership’s second-bottom team for a place in the top flight next term. It would also give Houston some down time to hopefully get injured players back to fitness and bolster the small squad.
Insisting his players have shown no signs of fatigue, in training or in matches, where they have regularly weighed in with vital goals in the dying minutes to prove they have the determination and the legs to take things all the way, Houston says they will accept whatever fate deals them and will still believe they can come through it all and earn promotion. But he says there is no doubting the advantage of having to tackle two fewer fixtures in a congested run-in and, while the pressure has been mounting on Hibs, the Falkirk boss says his men are taking things in their stride.
“As a group and as a team. We’re enjoying it,” he said. “We don’t fear it. I always say, what’s the worst that could happen? We get third. It’s not that much of a disaster, but we’re here and we’re very, very committed to trying to get that second spot and it would be a huge benefit to us to finish second. But if we don’t get it we’ll just need to go away, two days break, another cup final, two days break after that, another cup final, hopefully we’d be going two days after that another cup final. So that’s the way it goes, that’s the weight the play-offs bring.”
He believes that even holding off Hibs to claim the runners-up berth does not make life easy, with matters still weighted in favour of the top-flight side as the process reaches its denouement. He would like a shake-up with the Premiership’s 11th-placed team having to play the team that finishes fourth in the Championship and second play third. The two winning teams then have a decisive head to head.
“It’s not for me to decide, but if you’re asking me for my opinion of how it should be done that would make it fairer,” he said. “The smaller clubs are running the legs off their players to try to get a chance to face [the top-flight side in the final]. I just think it could be a wee bit fairer for the Championship teams to try to get that opportunity and make that bit more difficult for the 11th team to prove they’re worthy of staying in the Premier League.”