Don’t look back in anger: The Houstie Years

Peter Houston still holds Falkirk close to his heart. Pic by Michael Gillen.
Peter Houston still holds Falkirk close to his heart. Pic by Michael Gillen.

After the anger, the vociferous fierce online anger, came the remorse, the realisation and the gratitude.

No-one likes seeing anyone lose their job, no less three people who did, for the most part, give a very very good account of themselves in three and a bit years.

Easter Road was a happy hunting ground for Houstie.

Easter Road was a happy hunting ground for Houstie.

Yet for all those vehemently calling for the instant dismissal of Falkirk’s manager, just hours later, when their wish was granted, they realised, it was over, it was sad times, but there had been good times too.

Football’s fickle that way.

So after the anger of the current job he was doing came the memories and thanks for the job he did. Three bad months in three years cost him his job.

Along the way there’s been an agonising Scottish Cup final defeat in the last few minutes. There’s been promotion snatched away in the final 90 of the season, and there’s been a close-run thing last year too.

Alan Maybury, James McDonaugh and Peter Houston led the Bairns for just over three years.

Alan Maybury, James McDonaugh and Peter Houston led the Bairns for just over three years.

Good times.

Peter Houston arrived a Falkirk legend. The Ginger God. He leaves still a popular figure, albeit one whose final few months turned sour.

When he left the last time he’d pledged to be back as manager one day – and he arrived to fulfil it on June 12, 2014. There was at the time only one real candidate to replace Gary Holt. He was the main man, though another PH – Pieter Huistra – also impressed at interview. It was Houston’s to turn down and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to the club where he spent his finest spells as a player in 237 games and who lauded him with the ‘Houston Hardcore’ support.

He signed solid, proven pro’s like Jamie MacDonald and Tom Taiwo. That first season mirrors this one, the one that has cost him his job, but it turned into one of the most memorable in recent history. They started ok in the cups, and then struggled in the league early on.

Houstie came home in June 2014, and led the team to the Scottish Cup final in his first season in charge.

Houstie came home in June 2014, and led the team to the Scottish Cup final in his first season in charge.

Of course it ended up in the Scottish Cup final, it included a stunning streak of 17 games and just one defeat within it that thrust Falkirk up the table after their start but they slid back out of the play-offs but more than made up for it with magical moments at Hampden, and wins at Tynecastle and Easter Road, and almost, so nearly, at Ibrox.

The Scottish Cup final will be his crowning glory, and rightly so.

The town had bubbled for weeks thanks to Houston, the hero from Brockville, and Craig Sibbald, the modern-day hero of Westfield. It was the perfect recipe, and the town thronged with pride even afterwards amidst the disappointment of the defeat.

There was similar heartbreak in the following season, and similar highlights too. Defeat at Kilmarnock saw Houston come close, but fail in his ambition to return the Bairns to the top division, but along the way there were memorable wins over Rangers and Hibs at home with a never-say-die spirit.

However the enthusiasm began to wane last season despite again some positive league positioning. A surrender to Dundee United in the play-off semi-final fell flat over the summer when the club fell silent for more than a month. Little transfer activity with a shrinking budget, more outs than ins, season tickets down.

They returned though and roared into life in the Betfred Cup, raising expectations. They swept all before them, but only in the cup. In the league a win is still awaited. It is that start, that has cost Peter Houston, and assistants James McDonaugh and Alan Maybury their jobs.At one point the assistants were seen as potential replacements for Houston once he retired, now they are all out of work after a dismal run of form.

The summer signings have failed. The investment in Rory Loy has failed to pay off, yet. A crisis of confidence among those tasked with keeping the ball out at the back hasn’t helped.

Houston’s team selection infuriated fans right to the last, particularly his faith in one of the men tasked with replacing him in the interim, Mark Kerr.

His self-assured rebuttals to complaints over his team selections and substitutions put him on a collision course with the fans.

Indeed the fans who idolised him as a player were his fiercest critics, and their chant on the final day in charge was the final straw.

He was rarely far from one, clashing with Hibs, referees, Dunfermline. Alan Stubbs – to whom he memorably told “deal with it” in reference to defeat in the Scottish Cup was a verbal sparring partner. John McKendrick got it in the neck one particularly memorable day in Ibrox that saw the manager banned, while more recently a broadside at Dunfermline after a fiery game made engaging copy.

That’s the thing about Peter Houston, he always knew when and what to say in public and when to keep his counsel.

He also knew what he wanted, and who he wanted, and they almost got the Bairns out of the division, even when the big guns like Hibs and Rangers and Hearts were in Scottish football’s second tier.

His frequent references to the other bigger clubs’ budgets grew wearisome for those watching on the club’s in-house TV channel, then when his own budget was affected by those clubs being absent he highlighted that too.

He undoubtedly strengthened Gary Holt’s squad when he arrived, but questions were being asked behind the scenes over his investment in the club’s youth policy and the strategy he signed up for. That came this season with the likes of Tony Gallacher and Kevin O’Hara getting a go with that shrunken budget. But before, for every John Baird and Myles Hippolyte there was a Rory Boulding and an Alex Cooper. Squad fillers like Bob McHugh and Paul Watson provided an ample squad base and back-up but the Bairns couldn’t replace the talent vacuum created when Blair Alston, Will Vaulks and Conor McGrandles departed.

The frustration was in never unearthing an unknown rough diamond and polishing them up into a player like Steven Pressley and Gary Holt managed before him but the sum of the parts Peter Houston put together was greater than many ever expected, but this season the unity has not been there.

From shuffling for position between Rangers, Hearts and Hibs, Falkirk are now looking up at Livingston, Dumbarton and Dunfermline.

The current situation couldn’t carry on, it had to have a consequence, but not at the detriment of the memories of the three seasons before. Even his most vocal critics have turned and thanked him for his efforts, and for the efforts of his two assistants.

No-one wanted it not to work, and in the end, it hasn’t. Falkirk are not in the top flight, and aren’t looking like reaching that level any time soon. But under Houston, McDonaugh and Maybury it’s not for the want of trying, and there have been some memorable moments along the way.