League 1 preview: Falkirk hoping it's third time lucky as they once again target Championship return
The league cup group stages are behind us and it’s once again time to look ahead to what will be another tough season in Scottish football’s third tier for Falkirk.
Their past two attempts at gaining promotion back to the Championship have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
While there was a feeling of injustice surrounding the final outcome in 2019/20, the only feelings at the end of last season were despair and anger as the Bairns’ form, following a two-month suspension of lower leagues, nosedived so badly that they went from table-toppers to not even making the play-offs in just 40 days.
There has been further disruption lately, with Falkirk having to forfeit their final two Premier Sports Cup group-stage matches due to positive Covid-19 tests and isolations, but the new league season, as ever, brings with it hope and optimism that new head coach Paul Sheerin can finally return the club to the second tier.
Their transfer business this summer might not have been the most exciting but it has has been shrewd.
Left-back Leon McCann was named in the League 1 team of the season last year while at Airdrieonians, Ryan Williamson impressed in his performances against the Bairns with champions Partick Thistle, Steven Hetherington has experience of winning this league with Alloa and Brad McKay could well be the solid defensive stalwart that the team were seriously missing last campaign.
There’s still work to be done to add some strength in depth, but key positions have been filled and the recruitment has been solid.
As for players already at the Falkirk Stadium, it’s make-or-break time for striker Aidan Keena.
The Irish attacker hasn’t had his personal injury problems to seek and, with those hopefully behind him, he needs to get his season off to a flyer and start finding the back of the net regularly.
Another player who could prove key if fit will be Charlie Telfer, easily the Bairns’ top performer on a number of occasions last season, and Callumn Morrison will be hoping to show his class on a more consistent basis and chip in with double figures for both goals and assists from out wide.
With all that said, what about Falkirk’s rivals in what could well prove an even trickier season than last?
For the first time, the Bairns are not the bookies’ pre-season favourite for the title, that distinction going to Cove Rangers.
Nobody needs to tell Falkirk fans about the threat of Mitch Megginson, but, despite their obvious quality, calling them title favourites still raises a few eyebrows.
As a part-time club, last season’s shortened campaign of 22 games afforded them a huge opportunity of back-to-back promotions but they fell just short in the play-offs.
Now, with the season returning to 36 matches, the challenge becomes tougher for non-full time sides.
It can be done - plenty of part-timers have shown that in the past - but making Cove title favourites still seems a bit of a stretch.
Falkirk only have one other full-time rival to concern themselves with and that’s League 2 champions Queen’s Park.
When a team comes up to a new division, they can sometimes bring with them an air of the unknown, but that’s certainly not the case for Bairns supporters.
The Spiders have no fewer than six ex-Falkirk players in their squad, including former favourites Bob McHugh and Peter Grant.
They will play their home games at Firhill this season, having spent the latter part of last year leasing the Falkirk Stadium, and are very likely to be in amongst the contenders come the business end of this season.
However, despite being an obvious threat, Bairns supporters could very well line the two teams up side by side and legitimately ask themselves which players they would swap out.
The answer would probably be not too many.
If anyone in dark blue wasn’t already aware that Montrose are not a side to be taken lightly, then last season will have made sure that point was hammered home.
The Gable Endies have kept the bulk of their team together from last year and will once again have their eyes on a play-off spot.
A title tilt might be beyond them, though. It can’t be said they are stronger than they were last year and the loss of loanee Cammy Ballantyne will be felt after the St Johnstone man caught the eye on a number of occasions.
After a disappointing drop-off last year and a poor showing in their league cup group, it seems unlikely that East Fife will be much of a threat to the top sides this time around.
That being said, like Montrose, it would be foolish to take them lightly after several seasons of consistently good showings in this division.
Alloa Athletic and Airdrieonians will be be targeting the play-offs at a minimum but have seen large turnovers in their playing squads this summer.
While Falkirk look to have struck a good balance in their recruitment, both the Wasps and the Diamonds are certainly not in stronger positions than they were last year.
Bairns fans will not be looking at an Alloa line-up containing former players Conor Sammon and Mark Durnan with much trepidation.
Peterhead, Dumbarton and Clyde won’t prove easy games for anyone this season, though, but they will likely be focusing more on survival.