What do you reckon goes through the mind of the DJ at the Falkirk Stadium when injury time beckons? Maybe he thinks this’ll be the day when he gets to play a song he likes. Something deep and meaningful, or sensitive and obscure, or just plain perverse. Anything, in fact, other than Is This the Way to Bloody Amarillo because he just can’t stand it.
But that day never comes. Stoppage time arrives and Falkirk score. To draw or to win. No one can believe they’ve rescued another game and yet everyone knew they would. The DJ’s finger is poised over a button. Should he activate the ejector seat to fire him into the Central Scotland sky while the ground is variously left bemused and enraged by 35 minutes of self-indulgent jamming by the Grateful Dead – effectively the announcer’s resignation letter? No, better not …
“When the day is dawning,” warbles Tony Christie, “on a Texas Sunday morning… ”
But all of this would be pre-supposing the DJ is some kind of renegade when everything about the Bairns’ incredible promotion charge tells you the entire staff is resolutely on-message. From Peter Houston to Myles Hippolyte, required to be an athletic nuisance for the last 20 minutes, to the car park attendants. All of these people – as sure as “Sha la la lala lalala” is followed by “Boom-boom!” – know that the Bairns are comin’ to get ye. Whoever you are, however much football you play, whatever your possession and shots-on-target supremacy.
They came for Hibernian in the Premiership Play-off semi-final and they came for Kilmarnock in the first leg of the final. In a season of fairly predictable outcomes, their story has been astonishing. You keep waiting for a different denouement where the opposition, who’ve invariably been the better team in terms of such stats, aren’t caught at the death but successfully see the game out. Ten times this season Falkirk have gone beyond the 90th minute to score a decisive goal, four times in their last seven matches. Killie must stop this sequence today or Houston’s men will be stealing their place in the top flight.
In upsetting the natural order, Falkirk’s irresistible narrative has been likened to that of Leicester City, champions of England, and Atletico Madrid, conquerors of Barcelona en route to next Saturday’s Champions League final. Falkirk are the guys who like to boast about having a teensy budget, but it’s a valid point to make.
Their home is three-sided, the open aspect providing one of the ugliest, ungodliest panoramas in all football – just a blasted heath. Journalists have to sit some distance from the halfway line, which makes me think of Arthur Montford’s memories of Third Lanark’s Cathkin Park with its camera gantry down near a corner flag, the most challenging in the game. And the scribes’ desks aren’t even aligned with the seats, which adds to the odd, skew-whiff nature of the place.
For the match which clinched second place in the Championship, Falkirk opened up a new pressroom under the main stand. But when the hacks piled in at half-time they were greeted by this handwritten note: “There’s no hot food available at this moment due to a rise in fans! Please enjoys these crisps and chocolate. Pies may follow later. I have spoken to Bob. Regards, Rebecca.”
I’m unaware of Bob’s role but I bet it’s important to the great team effort and that he knows it inside out, just like another regular substitute, Lee Miller (Get on the park. Win free-kicks in tantalising areas). Houston has obviously drilled his troops well but does he get enough credit for this?
On the continent, Diego Simeone organises Atletico to the same nth degree. They soak up pressure defending like dogs and ride their luck sometimes, just like Falkirk – and then they pounce. They may only get one chance but they’ll absolutely be ready for it. Yet Simeone is hailed as a tactical titan who gets to wear natty clothes and the tightest-cut breeks while the wizard of Westfield is just Peter in his shellsuit.
Do we want to see Houston in spray-on strides? Perhaps he would rip them as often as Simeone’s opposite number for this Milan showdown, Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane, has obliterated his trousers this season. But if anything, Falkirk have out-Atletico-ed Simeone’s crew. They’ve chosen their moment to be the final action. If you think they play a percentage game, that’s actually pretty high-risk. Falkirk could be out of it by the closing minutes – and they would have been if Hibs and Killie had taken their chances – but this is the Bairns we’re talking about. The advantages of the method are obvious: there’s no time left for the opposition to respond.
By the sheer law of averages Falkirk can’t keep prevailing like this … can they? They believe there will always be a final opportunity, if the last long-throw is a dangerous googly, which it usually is. And the poor suckers they come up against seem to believe this, too. Killie were all too easily reeled in for that cheap free-kick which led to Thursday’s winner, fired through a knock-kneed Jamie MacDonald.
If you get fed up looking at the post-nuclear vista at the stadium, the Kelpies can just about be glimpsed through a gap in the stands. They encourage the thought that Falkirk have succeeded by stealth, lulling opponents into a false sense of security while concealing their best men. Not so much a wooden horse of Troy, more a metal horse of Forth Valley. But Falkirk’s secret is out now, why can’t other teams see this? Everyone knows what they do but no one can stop them doing it – unless Kris Boyd & Co can somehow trump them this afternoon.
Football seems to take on a different aspect when Atletico Falkirk are playing. If you were cynical you might wonder if the Americans had got hold of it, or at least the Americans who used to not like football. When once these people would have quartered it for more commercial breaks, now they’ve condensed it down to the final minutes.
Or maybe the It’s a Knockout! revivalists have got hold of it, creating another crazy alternative to sport for people who don’t actually like sport. The Attention Deficit Society, perhaps?
Whatever, Westfield is like nowhere else, as those Amarillo-bound pillow-huggers will gladly confirm.