Reaction: 40 day capitulation leads to another season in League 1 for Falkirk
40 days ago, Falkirk were top of League 1 and six points clear of second place Cove Rangers after a 2-0 win at Forfar.
At that point, the thought of them finishing outside the top four and missing out on the play-offs seemed unthinkable, but here we are.
However, they went on to pick up just five points from their last nine league games and only one point from their final six in a total capitulation which has seen them fall to their lowest league finish since 1978 when they also finished fifth in the third tier.
In that 40 day period since beating Forfar,a Bairns squad devastated by injuries to key players, looked a shadow of the side which had been battling it out with Raith Rovers in the 2019/20 season that came to a premature conclusion at the outset of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
When that first lockdown hit, Falkirk were unbeaten in the league under Lee Miller and David McCracken and were just one point behind Rovers who would be handed promotion by the governing bodies while the Bairns were left to fight it out in the third tier for another year.
After campaigning for league restructuring the Bairns, like many other disgruntled clubs, had to accept their fate and began to focus on the new season and a fresh bid to gain promotion back to the Championship.
The first major hurdle that the club faced was replacing start striker Declan McManus who had been on loan from Ross County when he netted his 19 league goals for the club in the previous campaign.
The attacker, who was out of contract, opted for a move to the Championship with Dunfermline Athletic which did not come as a surprise to anyone, knowing how difficult it would be to convince a player of his calibre to spend another season in League 1
Other decisions split the fan base, namely the releases of popular full back Michael Doyle and club captain Gregor Buchanan, but the recruitment of Miller and McCracken over the summer seemed sound.
Blair Alston’s return to the club was a popular piece of business while the additions of former Hearts duo Callumn Morrison and Aidan Keena in attack were cause for excitement.
The latter was the man who would step in to fill the shoes of McManus but would become the first casualty of season dogged by injuries when he was ruled out for months before the league season even began, picking up his injury in the Betfred Cup against Clyde.
Despite losing their number nine, the Bairns still scraped through to the knockout stages of the cup although this was mainly down to being awarded a 3-0 victory over Kilmarnock who had to forfeit after a covid outbreak in their squad.
The first league match showed good promise as they beat Montrose 3-1 at Links Park, having dug out the win with the scores level right up till the 85th minute.
The first home game where they drew with Forfar was less auspicious but they backed it up with a 2-0 win over East Fife before heading to Firhill for an early meeting with their main title rivals, Partick Thistle.
There was nothing to separate the two with the game ending 2-2 as Charlie Telfer came off the bench to score an 88th minute equaliser.
The Bairns continued through to their next meeting with the Jags on Boxing Day where they lost only one league games, against Airdrie, but narrow wins were paving over some below par performances.
Once again, the two title favourites played out a draw before Falkirk suffered their second league defeat of the season when they went down 2-1 to East Fife at Bayview on January 2.
The season was temporarily suspended with coronavirus cases across Scotland spiking after the festive period.
Weeks of uncertainty followed before it was eventually confirmed that the League 1 season would recommence, albeit it in a slightly shortened capacity.
Miller and McCraken recruited young loanees to bolster the squad who would go on to play far more minutes than would have been expected or indeed wanted from players still learning the game.
Their return was solid, wins over Montrose and Forfar either side of a Scottish Cup victory at Arbroath.
However, it was at this point 40 days ago where the wheels began to come off.
After a draw at Dumbarton they faced Airdrie and couldn’t deal with their hosts route one approach that night as they lost 2-1.
What would turn out to be their final win of the campaign came against Clyde before the season’s real turning point at the Balmoral Stadium.
A win over Cove would have extended their lead at the top and given them a clear sight of the finish line, instead they were second best for nearly the whole 90 minutes as Paul Hartley’s side won 2-0.
That gut punch was followed by the knockout blow for Miller and McCracken who needed a reaction the following Tuesday night at Peterhead and did not get one, with the Bairns once again outplayed for almost the full 90 minutes and the hosts claiming a deserved 1-0 win.
Badly let down by the players, the duo were gone the next day and sporting director Gary Holt stepped in to try and salvage promotion hopes.
The 2-2 draw with Cove Rangers showed definite signs of improvement going in to judgement night at Firhill last Thursday.
Falkirk could still guarantee the title with three wins from three while a win for Partick would see them crowned champions that very night which came to pass as the Bairns were hammered 5-0.
They needed just a point to guarantee a ply-off spot when they faced Montrose and were cruelly denied it when Sean Kelly’s 90th minute equaliser was disallowed in a 2-1 defeat.
The loss at Airdrie completed the capitulation but there was a feeling that, even if they had stumbled over the line to a play-off, there was little chance of them going all the way and claiming promotion in those matches.
There will be change this summer in the form of a new manager who will seemingly have a reduced budget to try and build a team capable of a title challenge, which will be no easier with three of Morton, Cove, Airdrie and Montrose also there to challenge as well as Ray McKinnon’s Queen’s Park coming up from League 2 to add another full time team to the mix.
From the current crop of players, very few have done anything close to enough to show they deserve to be retained, assuming they even wanted to be, as it looks like starting from scratch for the Bairns in a third consecutive third tier campaign.