Houston’s Crash-landing and Robbo’s unhappy return – desperate times for Championship Pair!

BEFORE a ball was kicked in the Scottish Football season, Falkirk and Inverness Caledonian Thistle were touted as two of the four main contenders for promotion to the top flight along with St Mirren and pre-season favourites Dundee United.

The Bairns had been knocking on the door of a Premiership return for the first time since 2010 having been in the Playoffs in three of the last four seasons, including the Playoff Final in 2016, whilst Caley were keen to bounce straight back up after last seasons relegation. Most outsiders, including the @sffpodcast team, saw the two sides finishing in the top four before a ball was kicked, with many tipping the Bairns to top the table.

However, the two clubs have had a rotten start to the 2017/18 season. Having spent 12 out of the last 13 years as an established Premiership club, the Highlanders sit EIGHTH in the table just two points ahead of bottom side Brechin City, whilst Falkirk are in an unwanted playoff position of NINTH having been winless in the League all season and are already 13 points behind leaders Dunfermline in the table.

The poor form of Falkirk has led to the departure of manager Peter Houston after nearly three and a half years at the club, and Inverness will be wondering if bringing back John Robertson, who famously led the club to their first ever stint in the top flight in 2004, was a mistake given their poor start to the season.

It’s a difficult time for both clubs who contested the Scottish Cup Final two years ago, won by the Highlanders as they landed their first major honour in their 23 year history.

Although they lost that Final, the Bairns recovered well and had a good League campaign where they finished second ahead of Hibs and defeated them in the Playoff Semi Final, before losing to Kilmarnock in the Final that denied them promotion against the same side who relegated them on the last day of the season seven years ago.

Last season, they again finished second and put themselves in a strong position for the Playoff Final when they held Dundee United to a 2-2 draw in the away leg. However, 1-0 up and against a tiring United, Falkirk surrendered their advantage and lost 2-1, missing out on a two-legged showdown against Hamilton. Houston was hoping that it’d be third time lucky for him this season, with rumours that he’d leave if Falkirk didn’t get promoted this time around.

Unfortunately, despite a solid League Cup group sections performance where they won all four matches, they haven’t properly recovered from that setback and their league performances this season simply haven’t been good enough.

So far, they’ve suffered resounding defeats to promotion rivals St Mirren, Dunfermline and Queen of the South whilst part timers Dumbarton and Brechin have held the Bairns to a draw in the opening quarter of League fixtures.

Saturday’s timid home loss to Livingston, who also dumped them out of the League Cup at the Falkirk Stadium, was the final straw for the board and they ended the “Houston, we have a problem” headlines that have followed them over the last few weeks. Of course, the club statement said that it was a mutual agreement but, given that Houston had said post-match that he was adamant he wouldn’t walk away, it’s difficult to imagine that was the case.

Whether he was pushed or he jumped, Peter Houston’s reign as Falkirk manager is over and the big question is who will the Bairns install as his successor?

Whoever comes in has a difficult job in lifting morale at the club given their troubled start to the season, that sees them more in the frame for battling to stay IN the Championship rather than get promotion out of it. The winless run needs to be halted and caretaker Alex Smith has a tough task getting confidence back into the side with a tricky trip to Morton on Saturday and, unless a new manager comes in before then, a Challenge Cup match at home to The Pars on International weekend.

Despite their lowly position, Falkirk is an attractive proposition for a manager either looking to get back into work or seeking their first steps in management. They have a decent squad and a decent youth set up that has churned out good players over the years and the club still have enough time to turn things around. Maybe not for a playoff spot this season but at least build the foundations for a stronger push the following campaign, as Jack Ross is proving at St Mirren.

Further North, things are not looking any rosier in Inverness. Still hurting from relegation, Caley have struggled to life in the Championship so far, with only one one so far against bottom side Brechin. They are leaking goals, 16 so far, went out the League Cup Group Stages and are already eight points off the top four.

It’s a far cry from the side of 2015, who impressively finished Third and lifted the Scottish Cup under John Hughes, making their European debut in the process. However, a board disagreement saw Hughes leave over a year ago and they handed the job to rookie Richie Foran on a four year deal.

That appointment proved to be a disaster as Foran oversaw the clubs relegation and he continuously slated the players in public, culminating in him declaring that he had rotten apples in his squad. Following relegation, the board recognised that Foran was the core problem and he was sacked with three years of his contract remaining.

Relegation and paying off Foran meant that there was always going to be cutbacks at the club, which would’ve likely restricted them in who they could attract to take place in the managers office. The fact that former player and current Aberdeen Under 20’s Coach Paul Sheerin was interviewed probably underlines that they wanted someone who knew the club but wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg in football terms.

However, the appointment of John Robertson, his second spell at the club, is surely as big a gamble as the failed Foran experiment 12 months ago?

Sure he won the club promotion in his first spell in charge, and he will rightly be a Caley legend for doing so. But what has Robertson done in the 12 and a half years since he left Inverness whilst they were finding their feet in the top flight?

He got sympathy for his six month spell at Hearts in that he was the first to suffer under the trigger-happy Vladimir Romanov but he had a spell at Ross County that didn’t last long, oversaw Livingston’s relegation after five years as a top flight club and being unable to mount a challenge to return to the top flight and has had spells at Derry City and East Fife. He hadn’t been in employment since leaving the Bayview Park side five years ago so for him to land the Inverness Caledonian Thistle job again was a big surprise.

Of course, it’s far too early for people to be calling for Robertson’s head and there is a bit of rebuilding to be done at the club having lost some key players like Greg Tansey, Ross Draper and Alex a Fisher in the wake of relegation. But Caley should be doing much better than their current position given their resources and the chances of them turning things around into mounting a promotion challenge is looking bleak.

If Robertson doesn’t halt the slide quickly, it won’t be long before the fans put sentiment aside and demand that he follows Houston in being dismissed by a Championship side.

Falkirk and Inverness Caledonian Thistle may not be the amongst the biggest clubs in the country but they are two respectable clubs that you’d expect to, at least, be challenging for promotion to the Premiership and not fighting relegation to League One.

There is still time for both sides to recover and Falkirk will argue that letting Peter Houston go now will give them a better chance of doing so. For Inverness, the hope is that John Robertson can find a winning formula quickly and rekindle the good days of his first spell in charge. Failure to do so and it will be another long season for the Caley faithful.

J Bleasdale

I am a football fan with a passion for writing, briefly studied journalism before other priorities got in the way. Enjoy blogging as its my way of expressing my thoughts on Scottish Football. Even though I'm an Aberdeen fan primarily, I'm happy to express my impartial views on other clubs.