Falkirk FC: Where did it go wrong? Is there a way back?

At the beginning of last season I predicted Falkirk to win the Championship title, that sort of world seems long gone now for the Bairns.

For two consecutive seasons Peter Houston managed to lead his side to second place in a very competitive league – after having competed in a Scottish cup final the year before.  In the first, it seemed at least for the first leg that Falkirk would get the better of Kilmarnock and return to the Premiership. A fight-back at Rugby Park for a Lee Clark led Killie put a stop to those hopes – what different paths each side has followed since.

A final defeat didn’t do much to discourage Houston’s squad the following season. Finishing second again, the Bairns were knocked out a round earlier, in the semi-final of the playoff, although it was a close fought tie with Dundee United.

It seemed only a matter of time before Falkirk returned to the top flight, but perhaps they missed their opportunities.  The 17/18 season got off to an awful start and cost Peter Houston his job. Paul Hartley was brought in to prevent what seemed a disastrous relegation. Hartley did just that, but it wasn’t exactly as big of a turn-around as some might have expected.

Nonetheless, the task Hartley was given was to retain Championship status, he did that. The task this season changed, for most Championship clubs it’s likely they’re aiming to at least challenge for promotion. Battling relegation again almost certainly would not have been the target though, so Hartley found himself out the door, replaced by Ray McKinnon – more on him later.

So where exactly did it go wrong for Falkirk? Is it just one mistake or is it a collection? And are they set up to turn this around?

Things obviously first went pear shaped under Houston. Although, I’m sure many would argue that he didn’t leave the club in a position of turmoil exactly. Sometimes managers take a club as far as they can, when that happens it’s more than likely the club will regress than stay stagnant, as other clubs can and will pass them by.

Houston’s side rather quickly regressed, but that can happen when the club has achieved some excellent levels of near-success, but Houston hasn’t managed to push them that last bit over the line. It seemed Craig Levein’s former assistant left in a more-or-less dignified way, thanking the club and with a general understanding round the decision that maybe it was just time for a change.

On the face of things, Paul Hartley seemed like a decent decision to come in and give the Bairns a kick-start. Some-what a promotion expert, the former Hearts man led Alloa Athletic to two consecutive promotions, guiding them to the Championship in his first job in management. Hartley also aided Dundee in returning to the Premiership, before finding himself in that all too familiar position for a manager, of “taken them as far as he can”.

Before leaving Dens Park, Hartley was regarded as an ambitious young manager with real potential. He’d consistently been linked with others job, and it’s believed he rejected a move to Cardiff City at one point. While this reputation had somewhat taken a knock after a disappointing ending at Dundee, it was still believed Hartley could revive his managerial prospects.

It didn’t really work out that way though. Even when Hartley was helping the club to safety last season, there was always rumblings from the clubs support of discontent.

It would be fair to look into the chance that possibly this disconnect between the club, Hartley and the supporters came about, at least in part, perhaps because of a large amount of upheaval.

Alienation of senior players and the closure of its youth academy, things certainly got a little bit tense at Falkirk – really they still are.

Last December the club took the decision to close its youth academy. The club had been running – in connection with Stenhousemuir and East Stirlingshire – the Forth Valley Youth Academy. Resources were pulled with the club hoping they could put all of its efforts behind gaining promotion to the Premiership.

Despite the academy being regarded as a successful one – the likes of Scott Arfield and Stephen Kingsley were products of it. The belief was that the tactic of producing young players, get the use of them while they develop and selling for profit simply wasn’t financially viable anymore. Not only that, but it wasn’t helping them in their current goal of promotion, which was seen as paramount.

It was even noted at the time that the board at Falkirk were inspired by Brentford’s similar system. Slightly ironic after we covered Brentford last week

Brentford FC: Leadership groups,promoting from within and making profit – Why the Bees aren’t your average Championship side.

This has proven to be a fairly unpopular decision among Bairns supporters and pundits across Scotland.

This wasn’t the only major change enacted during Paul Hartley’s reign. Just like most new manager’s, Hartley wanted to put his stamp down on his new turf. Sometimes this way of leaving a mark can leave a sour taste in people’s mouth and backfire, and this truly did.

Hartley looked to make massive changes in his first transfer window with the club (January 2018). Many players joined and many left. Two of these were veteran striker Lee Miller and another veteran, midfielder Mark Kerr. Both were apparently told they weren’t needed (Rumoured to have been told this on Christmas Eve no less) with rumours then circulating afterwards that this was down to attitude.

Fans were outraged, with many believing two players who had given plenty for the club had been frozen out and treated incredibly harshly by their new manager.

Lee Miller spoke out in an interview with the Daily Record after joining Livingston. Miller was intent on setting the record straight, he said:

“When I went back to Falkirk it was a fairy-tale. It was where I started my career and I wanted to finish it there.”

“Paul Hartley came in and had his own views. He wanted his own players and I didn’t fit. Me and Mark Kerr were basically out.”

“I’ve been in the game so long that nothing should surprise me. But I was shocked at how it ended for us at Falkirk.”

“There were rumours going around about myself and Mark poisoning the dressing-room and they hurt. Everything we did there was about keeping a strong dressing-room.”

Miller would go on to achieve promotion to the Premiership with Livingston, who are now flying – ironic after Miller’s position with Falkirk’s academy was axed along with the academy to try and help the Bairns get where Livi find themselves.

So those are maybe a few reasons why Falkirk find themselves in the position they are.

Can they get out of it however? Well it’s not exactly a great position following their loss to Queen of the South this weekend. They are bottom of the Championship, five points behind Alloa and six behind Partick Thistle. It’s not looking fantastic for the team Ray McKinnon now leads.

Is Ray McKinnon really the man for the job? The club certainly did themselves no favours in escaping the toxic, drama filled world they have been living in by appointing a man who’d literally only been at previous club Greenock Morton for a matter of months.

The anger from Morton supporters was felt by McKinnon for sure and you have to feel it puts extra pressure on him. A lot of eyes are cast towards Falkirk hoping to see McKinnon fail, after leaving Morton in the lurch, having joined them this summer with a lot of talk of big things.

Also, McKinnon isn’t exactly a serial promotion winner. He didn’t manage it with Raith Rovers, although it could certainly be argued he was overachieving there anyway. He didn’t manage promotion with Dundee United though, despite a far superior budget than had at Raith and an overwhelming anticipation for promotion.

So you take the fact he hasn’t actually managed what the club is aiming for in the past. Add the drama and controversy surrounding McKinnon and it doesn’t look like the smartest appointment – although there might not have been an all that impressive list of manager’s lining up to take the job at the Falkirk Stadium.

So where does that leave Falkirk? They can probably kiss any hope of promotion good bye. They are 13 points adrift of the first available playoff spot and there is plenty of competition for that anyway.

Not that they can get bogged down thinking about that, because they’ve got a Championship status to maintain. Alloa are the closest to them in the league and they’d have been many punters favourites to go down – but there isn’t a clear second team to take that playoff spot, in fact if they avoid automatic demotion, Falkirk would be touted for that position.

So they’ll need to outperform at least two teams. After that, if they can somehow turn this all on its head and become mathematically safe, McKinnon will need to take his team as high up the table as possible and build confidence for next season, while preparing to build a new team next summer.

So what’s the view from the terraces? We spoke to NE98 follower & Falkirk supporter David Lochhead (@Davidlochhead03 on twitter) about his views.

David Said:

“Falkirk have fallen significantly over the last 2 seasons, and I blame the board. They don’t care about the fans nor the club and gave Hartley free reign to ruin it.”

“16 new players was never going to work… Apparently he didn’t even see most of the players in action before signing them.”

“Mckinnon came into the club because of the goals the club have.”

“ Since then we have improved, we looked like a proper team during the 1st half against QOTS yet we still lack the quality. We’re doomed until January because we don’t have many players up to the standard of the Championship, nor do we have players with passion for the club.”

“Mckinnon has made 2 signings while being here too, Buaben and Rudden, 2 players that have been great. Those two players alone have completely changed the team, Buaben has brought a bit of creativity into the Midfield & Rudden has brought an attacking edge that we lacked but we still  have nobody who can play the ball to him.”

So that’s the verdict from David as to why the club finds itself where it is. It’s also quite clear from David’s statements that maybe the fans have a little bit more optimism and hope than it might seem from the outside looking in.

The further hope has been added to with the announcement on Tuesday from the club that Ray McKinnon would be given significant funds to recruit more players.

This announcement was met with mixed feelings. Obviously supporters are happy to see further money provided – with it clear that McKinnon’s two signings thus far are highly rated – but the actual announcement of this increase has worried a few.

For example, Twitter user Ross Wayne replied to the announcement saying –“’m sorry, why would you advertise an increased budget so that prospective players/agents can hold out for more?? Oh that’s right, it’s to take the increasing heat off of the CEO & Chair. Selfish position & another hurdle for the manager. One disaster to another…..”

So from the outside looking in, it would appear there is plenty of support from the Falkirk faithful for McKinnon himself – but the board above him are under fire to say the least.

There is a lot of work to do at Falkirk, that much is clear from the fact it’s early November and we are talking about how they can “save” themselves and how they’ll be thinking about next summer.

 

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