“We’re blue, we’re white, we’re fucking dynamite Falkirk Bairns, Falkirk Bairns!”
The chant was screamed loudly by the thousands of Falkirk fans who had made the trip to Hampden Park to contest the Scottish Cup semi-final against their newly elected rivals Hibernian on April 18th, 2015. Falkirk had withheld the Hibbies fast-paced attack for the bulk of the game, defending resolutely throughout. In the 75th minute, their academy starlet Craig Sibbald scored a header from a cross by another academy graduate, Blair Alston. This victory over Hibs put the Bairns into the Scottish Cup final, arguably the high point of a ten-season spell bookended by two relegations.
Falkirk are a decent-sized cub based in the central belt of Scotland and boast a passionate, vocal fanbase who, despite spending a decade in the Scottish Championship, boast higher attendances that several top-flight clubs. After several seasons of cup runs and promotion pushes, the Bairns collapsed in astonishing fashion this season, relegated to Scottish League One. But how did this happen?
The short answer is simple… mismanagement by the board. The long answer? The gory details? I am no Falkirk fan myself, so why guess? I took to Twitter to find some Falkirk fans and pick their brains. The answers were detailed and insightful. They were also sad to read. They tell of a team battered and bruised by a clueless board – forcing the fans to pay upward of £20 a game whilst doing everything in his power to disregard the wants and wishes of the fans.
The story begins a long time ago when Falkirk were still in the top division under the management of John ‘Yogi’ Hughes. Hughes was a revelation for Falkirk, playing lovely passing football and giving the team a gritty, resolute attitude.
Yogi was good for Falkirk and he knew it. While he was amassing a decent points haul in the top division, he was not afraid to flirt with bigger clubs, which had a tendency to rub fans and the board up the wrong way. It wasn’t classy, but it gave Hughes leverage. If Falkirk weren’t willing to put in the funds to help him improve the club then he would leave for a club who would. His bullish nature worked with the board, who spent large on the wages of players such as Steve Lovell, Jackie McNamara, Neil McCann and Steven Pressley.
This expenditure saw Falkirk reach the 2009 Scottish Cup final, where they were defeated by Rangers. Hughes left Falkirk shortly after losing the cup final, joining Hibs and leaving his beloved Falkirk to fend for themselves in the Scottish Premiership.
Eddie May was appointed, much to the fans’ dismay, and inherited a squad who, without the leadership of Yogi Hughes looked decidedly past their expiration date. The Europa League tie in July saw the old squad return to action without an adequate break, a fault which arguably saw them run out of steam towards the end of the year. They were relegated by Kilmarnock on the final day of the season in 2010 and have spent every season since in the second tier of Scottish football.
The next few years in the Championship were not pretty. The team swung from one extreme to the other, ditching the system of signing tried and tested past-their-best players and now opting to play academy kids. While some fans were thrilled at the culture switch, others were aggrieved to be paying £20 to watch “high schoolers play football”. The key was to strike a balance, blend a team of seasoned pros with a group of hungry kids – the kids learning from the pros and the pros feeding off the enthusiasm of the kids.
It took a couple of seasons of mediocrity, but the merging of the two occurred under the stewardship of Peter Houston, a former fan favourite from his playing days. Houston gave up a lucrative scouting job with Celtic to take over the Bairns in the division below, and what a division it was. In his first season in charge, 2014/15, Falkirk were in the second tier of Scottish football with a relegated Hearts and Hibs, as well as the newly formed Rangers who had taken over the assets of the original Glasgow Rangers after their liquidation in 2012.
Taking over a “normal” Championship team may have seemed like a foolhardy task given the tricky teams they were to face, yet Houston’s Falkirk side played admirably, learning when to play free-flowing football and when to sit back, absorb pressure and counterattack.
After a hit-and-miss first season, Houston got Falkirk to the Scottish Cup final, as well as creating some memorable playoff runs. After the 2016/17 playoff defeat to Dundee United, Houston announced that the next season would be his last with the team. The handling of matters from the board is where Falkirk’s fortuned took a real turn for the worse…
Falkirk agreed to keep Peter Houston in charge for the following season, however they did very little to help him in the transfer market. Some players left and with other players were simply past their peak. While Houston was a good manager, he was not a miracle worker and the board’s budget restrictions made it very difficult for him to strengthen a squad that was in dire need of rejuvenation.
The board should either have backed Houston or relieved him of his duties prior to the start of the season. Instead, they waited until the season was dead in the water before replacing him, bringing in Paul Hartley as a replacement. Hartley inherited a poor squad, but things were about to get a whole lot worse for the Bairns.
Just prior to Christmas 2017 the Falkirk board made the decision to close their youth academy. Falkirk pride themselves on being a community club, one which nurtures youth and encourages players to play football the right way. The closure of the academy, halfway through a season that was rapidly turning in to a disaster, was a horrible decision, one that alienated the fans further.
Some fans were okay with the decision, claiming that they felt the academy simply wasn’t the best use of club funds and that the ratio of successful players to those who fell by the wayside was too great. The majority, though, were outraged that the club were throwing aside their philosophy and style. Announcing this in the run-up to Christmas certainly didn’t help the matter.
The club released a statement months after the event, justifying their reasons, but it was too little too late – a PR nightmare all around. The costs were supposedly too high, with the running of the academy costing the Bairns £340,000/year to run. This would go up to £433,000 then £467,000. This was evidently a huge cost to the club, although they had a track record of selling some of these youth prospects for big money.
Since dropping down to the Scottish Championship the noteworthy academy player sales are:
- Stephen Kingsley £1.2m
- Conor McGrandles £1m
- Murray Wallace £300k
- Jay Fulton £200k
- Tony Gallagher £200k
- Botti Biabi £189k
- Ryan Blair undisclosed (approx £200k).
This also saw players like Blair Alston and Craig Sibbald leave upon expiry of contract, both talented players who would have fetched a good fee had they been sold earlier in their career.
The club made the decision to sell the academy. They decided to pay off soft loans and wanted to turn the emphasis on the first team squad. They believed that if they could invest well in first team players then they would return to the top flight and reap the financial rewards brought about by this.
Paul Hartley was backed heavily in player recruitment. Unfortunately for Falkirk fans, the funds that went into the first team were used to buy players who simply weren’t good enough. It was rumoured that former Hearts captain Paul Hartley had never watched many of the players signed, bringing them in based on highlights reels, agent whisperings and the poor advise of industry colleagues. This scouting style and analysis was a world away from the days of Yogi Hughes, who regularly drove down to England throughout the week to scout players himself. I am yet to find a Falkirk fan satisfied with his spell in charge of the team, with one fan stating that he was the biggest disappointment in all his years as a Falkirk fan, placing much of the blame of their current predicament with him.
After a summer of signings and squad rebuilding, Paul Hartley was relieved of his duties after losing their first three league games. It was another feat of incompetence from the board. Unlike the previous season where they had failed to back their manager and paid the price, they now had a situation where they had invested too heavily in him, his poor recruitment meaning that the squad was hampered until January.
Ray McKinnon was the man tasked with saving Falkirk’s season, the problem being, he was the manager of Morton, another Championship side. Morton had only hired McKinnon in the summer and Falkirk were hit with a £60,000 fine for the way that they went about persuading McKinnon to make the switch.
Fans were in disbelief that the club were willing to stump up that money for the manager but not to pay for a youth academy. They may have been willing to forgive this poor form had it been a one-off mistake, but after years of board mismanagement, the fans were far from happy. They turned out in great numbers week after week, yet it felt like their opinions weren’t valued and their voices weren’t heard. All that mattered was their money.
McKinnon was given the opportunity to sculpt the squad to his liking in January and began yet another overhaul. It made a difference and the Bairns began to accumulate some points. Unfortunately, so did their rivals. After an upturn in form McKinnon seemed to fear losing more than anything else, playing bewilderingly cautious football much to the disbelief of the few thousand fans that were turning out to back the Bairns each week. Multiple fans commented that it felt like their side didn’t try to attack until their must-win final game of the season – a win against already crowned league champions Ross County.
They got the three points needed in this must-win final game, however an impressive draw by Alloa against Ayr meant that the Bairns did not even have the hope of surviving through the playoff system. They finished 10th place, confirming that they will be playing in the third tier of Scottish football next season.
Win, lose or draw, the fans were unhappy and had planned a protest after the full-time whistle. They were beyond furious. The majority are smart enough to grasp that not every decision will pay off, mistakes happen as they do to everyone in every walk of life, but the previous few seasons have just been one cataclysmic failure after another. Even decisions that can be justified were let down by poor timing and lack of communication. One fan did point out that it isn’t like the board are intentionally trying to ruin Falkirk Football Club, though the majority are in agreement that regardless of the intentions, the bottom line is that the club have been relegated as a result of the horrible mismanagement by those in power.
There are many reasons that can explain how a club of Falkirk’s stature befell relegation, but the bottom line is that they fell victim to a horrible array of board decisions. Did they give Paul Hartley too much time, or Peter Houston too little? Were they right to curb the high cost of the youth academy, or should they have persevered with it in the hopes of discovering the next sellable star?
There are countless reasons that Falkirk have fallen off the rails in recent years, but the past is the past, and the primary concern for the club now is getting back to the Scottish Championship, with the Scottish Premiership still a realistic target over the next few years. But how?
Promotion is a must next season – ideally through a league title. While it is not uncommon to see sides storm a lower league in Scotland and continue with momentum to the next, as Livingston have done in recent years, it is just as common to see sides stagnate in divisions below. The club need a strong winning season to get their fans back on side and to build their reputation back up again.
Relegation is never an enjoyable process, but I was curious to find out whether this relegation stung more than the drop from the top flight. While Falkirk fans were disappointed in their relegation from the Scottish Premier League a decade ago, it was a final day drop in a season that they knew they would struggle. Their relegation this time around was significantly more embarrassing, with one fan describing it “death by a thousand cuts”. They went down in 2010 with a sense of unity, a feeling that if they stick to their guns then they would bounce back in no time. This time around, while the hope is that they will come back up, they are a fanbase divided, their distain for their board being their only point of togetherness.
At this stage, it is of little use to play the blame game. The team have been relegated to the third tier, condemned to spend a year playing teams that they haven’t faced outside of the odd cup tie in decades. The hope is that they storm the league, earning promotion in emphatic style, though this is easier said than done, as Raith Rovers, another team deemed “too good to go down”, found to their shock two years ago. It is looking more and more likely that it will be Ray McKinnon who will manage the team come the start of the season. If Falkirk are to gain promotion, he will need to turn on the style and get Falkirk back to their traditional ways. As one fan commented, if the team don’t bounce back on the first attempt, there may not be a Falkirk to support.
Whether you love Falkirk or loathe them, one must surely have sympathy with their fans. They are the ones who pay their hard-earned money week in week out, and they are the ones who have been let down massively by their board. They can count themselves unlucky not to have a Scottish Cup title to their name, and unluckier still to have missed out on top-flight promotion over the past few years. Whilst I am sure most Falkirk fans would rather have avoided relegation this season, there is the consolation that they should get back to winning ways for a while. The fans have been royally screwed over for a couple of years now and a season of winning is a decent way to build back the trust that has been shattered in recent times.