BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Falkirk technical director Alex Smith has described his immense pride after travelling to the Emirates to watch Stephen Kingsley and Jay Fulton star in Swansea’s stunning 2-1 win over Arsenal.
Smith, 76, and Bairns head of football operations Creag Robertson made the trip to London on short notice after getting word that Kingsley, who made 108 appearances for the Championship club before joining the Swans in 2014, would be making his first start for the Welsh outfit on Wednesday evening.
The 21-year-old turned in a diligent display against a rampant Joel Campbell and, as the encounter wore on, launched a couple of dangerous forays forward to help Francesco Guidolin’s men claim a shock triumph.
Fulton, also 21, entered the fray as a 71st minute substitute and was on the pitch mixing it with the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez when Ashley Williams netted the dramatic winner for the visitors.
Kingsley and Fulton, both products of the Bairns academy, celebrated arm in arm at full-time – and a contender for the proudest man in the stadium was wearing Falkirk colours.
Smith smiled: “I was looking up at Stephen’s name coming up on the big screen at a venue like the Emirates . . . and you can’t help but think about what these boys were like in our academy.
“I remember when Stephen first joined Falkirk. He was just a wee lad – a schoolboy. Last night he was playing against Arsenal in front of 60,000 people, against a team managed by someone of the stature of Arsene Wenger. So, yes, it was something really special.
“I didn’t text Stephen before the game to wish him luck or anything, I didn’t want to disturb him. But I have been in touch since to tell him how proud we all are. That is what this football club is all about.
“Jay had already started a game for Swansea, but when he came on it was just the icing on the cake to see them facing Arsenal together. They actually made their Falkirk debuts together as 16-year-olds against Partick Thistle (on April 12, 2011) so it’s been some journey.”
Smith was unsurprised to see Kingsley turn in an unflustered display at full-back at the Emirates, insisting his grounding at Falkirk – which included a Scottish Cup semi-final and several fraught playoff clashes – steeled him for the challenge posed by the Gunners.
He continued: “We have a wall of pictures in the corridors of the stadium which identifies when our young players make their senior debuts. From that point, we want them to play 100 games before the age of 19 or 20. That gives them the grounding to move on and do well.
“For these boys to have amassed so many games and to have played cup fixtures against the likes of Celtic and experienced major semi-finals at Hampden is great preparation for the challenges they were facing.
“I thought Stephen was outstanding, after being slightly tentative at the start, understandably, because Arsenal were rampant early on. The full-backs got forward, Stephen linked up with the forwards and put a couple of terrific crosses in.
“But that shouldn’t be surprising – we never had any doubt about the temperaments of Stephen or Jay. They played big games for Falkirk, consistently in the first team, and never let us down.”
Smith, who is fiercely proud of the club’s record for developing young players, believes the progress made by the Swansea duo – as well as previous products such as Scott Arfield – vindicates their faith in teenage talent.
Current star Blair Alston has played over 200 games for the club at the age of 23, while 20-year-old Craig Sibbald is not far behind.
And there is another generation of youngsters such as Kevin O’Hara, who featured in the Scottish Cup final last season at the age of 16, and Tony Gallagher, also just 16, who will emerge as first-team regulars in seasons to come.
Smith continued: “It is hard for those players to break into the team at this moment in time, because we are doing so well, but their talent will see them come into the team eventually – and they will get that same grounding.”