BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Peter Houston insists the collapse of Rangers’ promotion bid last season will serve as a cautionary tale for Falkirk as he dismissed the notion that his side should be considered favourites to defeat Kilmarnock.
The buoyant Bairns are within one tie of a return to the Premiership after six years in Scotland’s second tier, having disposed of Hibernian in typically dramatic fashion to tee up what Houston describes as a “cup final” against Lee Clark’s men.
The Ayrshire club approach this encounter reeling from a tumultuous campaign, finishing in 11th spot and replacing Gary Locke with former Huddersfield and Birmingham boss Clark on February 16. They have won just two of 13 matches since then.
Allied with the fact Falkirk tasted defeat just four times in the Championship all season – one fewer than champions, Rangers – and have displayed a remarkable propensity for last-minute goals, most recently with Bob McHugh’s strike against Hibs which secured a 5-4 aggregate win, many observers are predicting the Bairns to prevail.
Houston, however, recalls similarities with this stage last season, only for Motherwell to make a mockery of an underwhelming Premiership campaign to demolish Stuart McCall’s Gers 6-1 over two legs.
So you will not catch the Falkirk boss casting aside his underdog tag ahead of Thursday’s first leg at the Falkirk Stadium.
“I’ve told our players not to be led into thinking that we just need to turn up on the night,” insisted Houston. “I think that’s the worst thing that could happen.
“You only need to remember what happened in the play-offs last year: Motherwell had had a poor season and then look at what they did to that Rangers team. I still think Kilmarnock are the favourites, being the Premiership side, and they have a good balance of youth and experience.
“They haven’t had their best season, that is plainly obvious to see. But Lee [Clark] has come in and tried to settle the squad, and in some games they have been very good.
“We will have to play to our maximum, and will probably have to play better than we did against Hibernian, to get into the Premiership.”
Suffice to say Falkirk’s own harrowing finale to last term will also be deemed worthy of a mention during Houston’s thorough preparations with his squad this week.
The Bairns players spent last summer licking their wounds following a narrow 2-1 Scottish Cup final defeat against Inverness Caledonian Thistle after coming agonisingly close to lifting the old trophy for the first time since 1957.
To this day Houston, having pored over the footage countless times, can deliver an expert analysis of James Vincent’s winning goal for Inverness down to the microsecond. It still hurts.
“We don’t want to be feeling that way on Sunday,” he continued. “We know what it’s like to end a season with disappointment and regret.
“Immediately after we lost to Inverness we spoke about using the hurt we all felt at the final whistle – and we have done that this season.
“We will be giving it our best shot to ensure that doesn’t happen again. We are thinking positively and we want the season to end with joy.”
It has already been a terrific campaign for a Falkirk side which were expected to be, at best, also-rans in the Championship behind Rangers and Hibs, however Houston is not ready to raise a glass to their achievements just yet.
“I only want plaudits for getting to the Premiership,” said the PFA Scotland manager of the year nominee. “I’ve said to my players consistently – this is magnificent progress, but we have achieved nothing.”