TOWARDS the end of the naughties, Falkirk Football Club were an SPL (now Premiership) side. They had also just reached the Scottish Cup Final and had played their first, and to date only, match in Europe.
As we get ready to go into the 2020’s, the club sit Fourth in League One and are looking for their seventh manager of the 2010’s. In addition, the club also saw a takeover fall through at the last minute, creating uncertainty both on and off the pitch.
For a club used to being a yo-yo side between the top two divisions, it’s an alarming decline and fans are becoming more frustrated with how the club is being run.
It’s not always been this bleak for the Bairns since their top flight relegation in 2010, despite Steven Pressley’s guarantee that they’d stay up after his appointment. They reached the Scottish Cup Final in 2015, got to two more Semi Finals in both major Cup competitions, and led the Premiership Playoff Final after the first leg in 2016 before Kilmarnock blew them away in the return at Rugby Park, scene of their relegation six years earlier. They also got to the Semi Final stage of the Playoffs the following season, and were looking at another crack at a top flight return before losing to Dundee United.
That late collapse was what really started the decline. Within seven months, Peter Houston was sacked after three years in the job following a poor start to the League season. Paul Hartley was brought in with the promise of promotion, which the board gambled on so much that they controversially scrapped their youth academy in order to release more funds for the first team squad.
The gamble didn’t pay off as Falkirk didn’t get going under Hartley. An eighth place finish ahead of part timers Dumbarton and Brechin was very underwhelming for a side that had been runners up the previous two seasons, and Hartley was dismissed after eleven months following a poor start to the following season.
Controversially, he was replaced by Ray McKinnon, who’d only become Morton Manager three months earlier. His ex-employers made a complaint over the approach, which was eventually settled between the two sides after the Bairns appealed a £60,000 fine.
But McKinnon’s tenure was even more costly. They won two out of his first 17 matches, exiting the Scottish Cup to Stenhousemuir and being cast adrift in the bottom two with Partick Thistle. The board backed him in January with eleven new signings in a bid to halt the decline. However, despite an initial eight match unbeaten run, the club couldn’t get out of trouble with just six wins from the last 17 matches, culminating with relegation on the final day of the season on goal difference.
What was baffling prior to the final day, where they were three points behind going into their match against already promoted Ross County, was that McKinnon would’ve taken that scenario when he took the job. Falkirk fans must’ve been irate to hear such comments as there was plenty of time for McKinnon to turn around the clubs fortunes, especially as only three League games had been played prior to his arrival.
Despite many believing his position was untenable for overseeing Falkirk’s drop into the third tier of Scottish Football, the board stuck by McKinnon and allowed him another overhaul of the squad. Seventeen players were recruited with the simple aim of going straight back up at the first attempt.
Sitting in fourth position having played a game more than both Raith Rovers and East Fife, and sitting three points behind current leaders Airdrie, was not what the fans and board were expecting from a side with the highest budget in the league. Saturday’s draw with Dumbarton signalled the end of Ray McKinnon’s troubled tenure, and he can hardly claim that it was unjustified given his record in charge.
With McKinnon gone, the thoughts turn to who the next Falkirk manager should be to turn around the teams fortunes and get them out of League One at the first attempt. Two former managers have emerged as the front runners for the job.
Owen Coyle had a five month spell in joint-charge back in 2003 alongside John Hughes, guiding them to the Old Division One title before resuming his playing career after Stadium regulations prevented top flight promotion. After a promising start on the managerial ladder at Burnley then Bolton, his stock has plummeted since an FA Cup Semi Final hammering in 2011, followed by relegation, with the Trotters before having failed spells at Wigan, Blackburn and Ross County, effectively steering the latter two to their respective relegations.
Hughes, meanwhile, was very successful in his spell in charge. After overseeing the move from Brockville to The Falkirk Stadium, he took the club to the top flight in 2005, kept them there for four years and took them to the 2009 Scottish Cup Final before moving to Hibs. He had an even more successful spell at Inverness Caledonian Thistle, finishing third in the Premiership in 2015 and won them the Scottish Cup that same year at the expense of The Bairns. Unfortunately, his last managerial role was a disaster, overseeing relegation to League One with Raith Rovers in his three months at Starks Park.
Two other managers being touted are East Fife’s Darren Young and Montrose gaffer Stewart Petrie. Young played his managerial trade at Albion Rovers, taking them up to League One four years ago, and has got East Fife competing for promotion this season, currently third ahead of Falkirk with a game in hand. Petrie has worked miracles with a Montrose side who nearly went out the SPFL set up in 2015, winning promotion in 2018 and taking them into the Championship playoffs before going down to Queen of the South. Both have the potential to move to take on a bigger challenge with a full time club, the question is are Falkirk willing to go down this route or look for someone more experienced to achieve their promotion aim?
Whoever they bring in, Falkirk’s problems are not automatically solved with the appointment of a new manager. It’s clear from the outside that the club have lost their direction under a board who have been looking to sell to another buyer. Now that takeover has fallen through, they need to refocus and pull together to make sure that the club is run properly again if they are to achieve their long term aim of getting into the Premiership, which should not be unrealistic given their stature.
However, it is unrealistic right now and the immediate aim is to get an underachieving bunch of players to start winning regularly again and get the club back into the Championship. It could be suggested that some of those players have underestimated League One level and the fact there are decent sides in there, but there is no doubt Falkirk should be doing much better than fourth.
The board will need to move quickly to bring a new man in, especially ahead of a tricky Scottish Cup tie at Linlithgow Rose this Friday, where defeat would really darken the gloomy mood hanging over The Falkirk Stadium. After the failures of Hartley and McKinnon, the pressure is on the board to get this appointment right and get Falkirk Football Club pointing in the right direction again.