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Hungry like the Bairns: How Falkirk are bouncing back from their banter era

For the last five years, Falkirk have been unwilling participants in one of Scottish football’s biggest pantomimes. But could their fortunes be about to change?


This article first appeared in Issue 29 which was published in September 2023.

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You know how someone falling over is always a lot funnier when the person involved is stumbling along for ages and takes about 15 yards to eventually hit the deck? That's Falkirk's relegation from the Championship. No-one could foresee them going down after finishing second in the 2016/17 season, and in fairness, Paul Hartley eventually kept them up after a woeful start to the following season. You presumed that would be that, they’d go back to being a decent Championship team and we’d all forget that six months or so where they looked like the worst team around.
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“I think we are beyond the bottom of the curve and on our way back up again, but then motivating the fans and persuading them to put in money... it’s chicken and egg, isn’t it? We’re saying, ‘You need to put in money in order for us to make the team better’, and they’re saying, ‘Well, we’re no’ putting in any money because the team’s no’ very good.’

Looked at from a certain angle, Falkirk appear to be thriving in ways that would make most provincial clubs green with envy. Ninety minutes away from reaching a Scottish Cup final in April, they have a sizable, passionate fanbase and a large, modern stadium where they averaged healthy crowds of just under 4,000 last season, soaring into the six and seven thousands when arch nemesis Dunfermline came to town.

Their attack-minded first team outscored everyone other than Celtic, Rangers and Airdrieonians in the SPFL last term, and is overseen by an experienced manager with a proven track record. They have a young and popular CEO who was a boyhood fan who’s now living the dream, working alongside a board that have done a commendable job of guiding the club through choppy waters since taking over in late 2021. And, as of earlier this summer, the Bairns are the latest club to join the fan ownership revolution sweeping Scottish football.

There’s just one problem. But it’s a doozy. A problem that has made them a target of relentless mockery on Twitter and Pie & Bovril for the past four seasons, and which, on the bad days – like May 9 of this year at the Excelsior Stadium – can hang over them like a big, black raincloud and make talking about all those positive things I’ve just mentioned seem more hollow than a defeated manager pointing out that his side won more corners.

Falkirk FC play in League One. The two-time Scottish Cup winners, comfortably ensconced in the top flight 15 years ago and holding their own with Hibs, Hearts and Rangers in the Championship’s upper reaches less than a decade ago, are now the kind of football club that can go through a league season taking four points from an available 12 against Kelty Hearts.

Of course, they are far from the only Scottish football club this century to have taken a diving heeder down into a league they consider beneath them. Learn the right lessons from it and it can actually be a welcome wake-up call, a chance to re-evaluate and to reaffirm what it is that made people fall in love with your club in the first place.

Instead of reaching for a self-help volume or philosophy textbook, however, Falkirk appear to have flicked open The Necronomicon (the book that unleashes the demons in the Evil Dead films) when they were relegated from the Championship in 2019. Since then the fans have endured four failed promotion attempts – all acutely painful in distinct ways – seven different management teams, a Roman Legion worth of failed signings, an act of professional suicide committed by a board via YouTube stream, and one particular season so inconceivably bad the Bairns had a convincing claim on the title: “Worst full-time team ever seen in Scottish football.”

Now, thanks to the new board, manager John McGlynn and fan ownership body the Falkirk Supporters’ Society, the worm may just have turned – but only if they get the outcome they desire in the League One promotion battle that kicked off last month. Succeed, and a bright future could lie ahead. Fail, and, as CEO Jamie Swinney frankly admitted over the summer, a part-time or hybrid model may have to be imposed, potentially condemning them to an indeterminate exile on their own personal, cinch-branded Isle of Elba. It’s for that reason that Falkirk – not Celtic, not Rangers, not even Dundee United in their rush to return to the Premiership – are operating under more pressure than any other club in Scotland this season.

Maybe it was the memory of how his absence seemed to bring good luck when he had to settle for listening to the Brockville roars in a nearby pub during Falkirk’s 4-0 Scottish Cup win over Hearts in 2003. Maybe he just really admires Simon Le Bon’s vocal range. Or maybe he just knows his football club all too well. Whatever his motives, John McInally’s decision to go and see Duran Duran at the Hydro back on May 9, rather than the first leg of the Scottish Championship play-off semi-final against Airdrie, proved to be a wise one.

Falkirk went into the tie as marginal favourites. It was they, not Airdrie, who had duked it out with Dunfermline in a title race so absorbing it drew a combined attendance of over 15,000 to the clubs’ last two showdowns of the season, and when the final League One table was totted up the second-placed Bairns were seven points better off than the third-placed Diamonds. But John had barely had a chance to get his hands on an overpriced pint when things went catastrophically wrong. It was 1-0 Airdrie after eight minutes. 3-0 after 16 minutes. And, with Scottish football Twitter going into meltdown and the demand for Falkirk to release the highlights already so high they could probably have sold out Hampden for a screening, two woefully defended free headers saw the hosts race into a 5-0 lead before half-time.

McGlynn’s visitors briefly threatened an unlikely comeback with two second-half replies, but an utterly scunnering 95th minute penalty converted by Airdrie player-manager Rhys McCabe, followed by a Gabby McGill strike in the return fixture four days later, sealed a stunning 7-2 aggregate victory for the Diamonds which even all these months later still makes you do a bit of a double take.

“At the time it’s like going through the stages of grief,” reflects McInally, co-host of the Falkirk Daft podcast and a radio producer for Clyde 1. “Anger, crying, acceptance… It’s been hard to get over. We said on the podcast it’s probably the worst 45 minutes we’ve seen, certainly over the span of my relationship with Falkirk. When I went to the gig I was thinking we’d get a wee 0-0, or maybe lose 2-1, take it back to The Stadium and do the business there.

‘You always have that feeling things could go wrong’

“But as a Falkirk supporter, you always have that feeling things could go wrong… I think the killer was that stoppage-time penalty. At 5-2 there was a little hint of hope, but when the penalty went in, it was like, ‘There’s no chance. Absolutely no chance.’”

Cataclysmic as the events of that night felt at that time, in a way it was just par for the course. Falkirk’s repeated failures to escape from League One have become almost formulaic; a meme, a ‘hing’, an event you can set your watch by and the one night on the calendar when Scottish football’s Schadenfreude Ultras work themselves into a bigger frenzy than the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. Was their collapse at the Excelsior even the worst instance of the club’s promotion jitters so far?

“Honestly, that’s a tricky one,” says Shaughan McGuigan from BBC Scotland’s A View From The Terrace. “It was probably the most spectacular, considering Falkirk had finished above Airdrie and were a better team in my opinion. But right from the word go Falkirk looked completely spooked. Sure, there’d been wee suggestions that they were running out of steam – the home defeat to Edinburgh City a few weeks previous was wretched – but they’d still only lost three league games in six months. And actually, over the piece Airdrie should have won by more.

“But bear in mind the season Partick Thistle ended up winning it in 2020/21, when Falkirk were six points clear at the end of March, having started the season with six wins and two draws, then closed with one draw and five defeats and ended up finishing fifth and not qualifying for the play-offs. It was extraordinary. I was out for a meal the night they lost 5-0 to Thistle in the April, and could barely eat my main course and pudding I spent so long laughing.”

Bear with me, Falkirk fans, I promise that not all of this article will be so mind-numbingly depressing for you. But it’s worth probing a little further into the psychology of this. Why DOES the rest of Scottish football – or at least the parts of it not too consumed by Premiership goings-on to notice – find Falkirk’s failures quite so funny? Because it’s one thing doing a Nelson Muntz if you’re a fan of Dunfermline, or any other team with an established history or geography-based beef with the Bairns. But what about everyone else? Is there something particular about Falkirk, or would people point and laugh at any club of their stature that got themselves into such a fankle?

“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” offers Raith Rovers fan McGuigan. “For the bulk of my time Falkirk have been either a good second-tier team or a bog standard top-tier side, so to see them languishing in the third tier was always going to raise a smile, the same way it would if it were Dundee, for example – and God-willing, maybe we’ll find out how funny that would be some day!

“It’s also how they ended up there. You know how someone falling over is always a lot funnier when the person involved is stumbling along for ages and takes about 15 yards to eventually hit the deck? That’s Falkirk’s relegation from the Championship. No-one could foresee them going down after finishing second in the 2016/17 season, and in fairness, Paul Hartley eventually kept them up after a woeful start to the following season. You presumed that would be that, they’d go back to being a decent Championship team and we’d all forget that six months or so where they looked like the worst team around.

“Instead, they got worse. They were terrible again the next season, eventually getting relegated because their fans ran on the park to celebrate an injury-time goal against Queen of the South, adding on unnecessary injury time which Queen’s equalised in. If Queen’s hadn’t scored that goal, Falkirk would have finished safe on 40 points. I mean, that’s just funny.

“Since then, it’s basically felt like a remake of the Rangers ‘patter years’, with every decision they make a disaster. The managerial appointments, the player recruitment, that inexplicably filmed board Q&A session they decided to put up for people to watch – despite it making them look terrible – signing Leigh Griffiths, the opprobrium when Raith won the league by 0.03 of a point in 2019/20, and being pound-for-pound the worst full-time team of all time in 2021/22. It’s not just that they’ve been bad, it’s that they’ve created incredible entertainment while being at arguably their lowest ebb. And with Scottish football being such a small place, if you’re interested in our game, they’ve been impossible to ignore.”

From John’s perspective, it’s something you simply have to take on the chin with as much sangfroid as you can muster. “Oh, if Dunfermline had gone through what we’ve been through I’d be putting the boot in, totally!” he laughs. “It’s just part and parcel of the Scottish game and the banter we all have. On the podcast we are obviously a big target for Dunfermline supporters, and Airdrie supporters, and Morton supporters, and just about every supporter that doesn’t like us much – which is pretty much everyone. But at the end of the day you’ve got to take your medicine, because you are where you are for a reason. It happens in football, and eventually the tides will turn and we’ll have our day again.”

If things do go to plan for Falkirk over the next few years, and they reach a point where their fans are able to look back at all this with a wry laugh, season 2021/22 will undoubtedly be remembered as their ‘night is darkest before the dawn’ moment. This was the sort of campaign the Netflix producers are secretly hoping for when they turn up to do a documentary somewhere like Sunderland, and it is not any form of hyperbole to say it was the worst in the club’s 147-year history – financially, reputationally and on the park.

Three managers came and went without a glimmer of any of them knowing what they were doing, as Falkirk lost 16 of their 36 League One fixtures en route to a sixth-place finish; 35 points adrift of champions Cove Rangers and only 10 away from a relegation play-off. Lowest ever league finish, biggest ever trading loss (£1.2 million) – it was a record- breaking year in all the worst ways, yet somehow the lowest point didn’t come on a matchday, but in a local hotel on a weeknight in October, at the sort of event that’s usually dreary enough for local paper reporters to fall asleep and wake up with drool on their Dictaphone.

What was meant to be a constructive Q&A turned into a pitched battle between the board and the fans, who were heavily gaslit with the implication that their negativity was somehow to blame for the team’s failures on the field. For a surreal 24 hours or so after footage was posted on YouTube, the Bairns were internet famous, with clips of the worst moments shared far and wide and Hamburg’s official Twitter account even getting in on the act by quoting then Falkirk chairman Gary Deans.

“I was actually angry on the fans’ behalf, as the arrogance on show was horrendous,” remembers McGuigan. “But funnily enough, I do think that certain elements of the board showing themselves up in such a poor light made changes in that area happen quicker. As excruciating as much of it was, it probably ended up being a positive eventually.”

Within a matter of weeks Deans and most of the rest of the board had gone, replaced by a new group of fans and businesspeople who were determined to turn the page from the ‘Lolkirk’ era as soon as possible. People like Kenny Jamieson. “I’m sure with hindsight the guys would have managed to lose the footage of the Q&A, pretend there was a technical problem with the recording!” he says. “But it was a watershed moment for the club and a catalyst for change. I had been talking to the board for years. I knew most of the others when the new board started; not all, but Falkirk’s a small place. One of them went to school with my brother.”

A former SFA commercial director, consultant and author, Jamieson also spent many successful years in the drinks trade with Tennent’s and Diageo among others. It says something about the unique and enduring love we often develop for our football clubs in this country that Jamieson now spends most of his retirement performing the complicated strategic and mathematical gymnastics required to make Falkirk, a League One club with Premiership-level facilities and costs, something other than a business basket case. Working alongside the rest of the board and CEO Swinney – who joined earlier in 2021 after impressing in the same role at Stenhousemuir – Jamieson has helped to revamp Falkirk as a commercial entity, driving them further along the road to fan ownership. It’s a journey that peaked earlier this summer when the Falkirk Supporters’ Society (FSS) became the club’s largest shareholder after being named the first beneficiaries of the Scottish Government’s Fan Bank initiative. They received an interest-free loan of £350,000 that will be repaid over a 20-year period.

Now, you’ll have to bear with me again, as this next section is where the little I remember from Standard Grade Business Studies is really going to be put to the test. Falkirk now operate using a model known as the “three-legged stool”, which means that the club’s shares are equally divided between three groups:

  • large shareholders (a group of wealthy businessmen and fans who saved the club from liquidation back in 1998)
  • medium shareholders (also known as the Patrons’ Group, made up of people like Kenny who have all invested between £10,000 and £100,000)
  • and small shareholders, aka the FSS members, all chipping in a minimum of £10 a month.

“The guiding principle behind that model is that no one group can dominate,” Jamieson explains. “The club has to be run on democratic principles because there’s no one owner and nobody has got over 50%. But it also means that each group has at least 26%, and that’s important because special resolutions – major decisions like changing the strip from blue to pink or selling the club – require a 75% majority. Any major decision about the club going forward would have to have the support of all three groups.

“At Motherwell and Hearts, their equivalent of our society has more than 50% of the shares, but our vision and our preference is something slightly different. There’s a number of reasons we prefer that; one is that we’ve got these large shareholders and they’re good people, so we don’t want to tell them to bugger off – why would you? If you can go to one individual and say, ‘Can you lend us 100 grand?’, and they write you a cheque, it’s really quite beneficial.

“Having medium shareholders is also beneficial, they’re not super-wealthy people but they own local businesses or have worked in professional careers, and if you need to raise five or 10 grand quickly they are a great source of support. As for the small shareholders, what you really want is mass participation, as many people as possible paying £10 or more a month. We’d like to get that up to £400,000 a year; in order to do that you need about 2,500 members, and we currently have 700. If we can raise that £400,000 then that literally covers the average operating loss we need to run at in order to get back into the Championship and compete at the top end of it, or to stay full-time in League One – God forbid we spend any more time there. That’s what we’re trying to build towards.”

Of course, the irony of Falkirk’s situation is that only money can guarantee on-field success, but only on-field success can guarantee more money. The club have taken some stick for their many and varied fund-raising schemes – auctioning off 100 portions of their newly-laid pitch for £50 apiece, selling 10-year season ticket packages for £5,000 and agreeing a front-of-shirt sponsorship deal with digital marketing brand Crunchy Carrots to name just a few – but the harsh reality of the balance sheet means they can’t really afford a cringe reflex, and the results have been undeniably eye-catching, Swinney revealing at February’s AGM that the amounts raised from retail and sponsorship were both at their highest levels for eight years. Where it can become slightly conflicting for those involved is having to keep going cap in hand to a fanbase that have already done the club a solid turn simply by continuing to turn up and buy season tickets through the unremitting bleakness of the past five years.

“It is difficult, no question, going back to the same people again and again and again,” Jamieson admits. “And because results haven’t been good in the last five years – better last year, but ultimately still short of promotion – you can understand that fans become disillusioned. But you’ve got to try and turn this downward spiral around that the club has been on.

“I think we are beyond the bottom of the curve and on our way back up again, but then motivating the fans and persuading them to put in money… it’s chicken and egg, isn’t it? We’re saying, ‘You need to put in money in order for us to make the team better’, and they’re saying, ‘Well, we’re no’ putting in any money because the team’s no’ very good.’ If you break it (FSS membership) down to a weekly amount, it’s about £2.50 or £3 a week, the cost of a cup of coffee, and every penny of it goes straight into the football budget. So if everybody puts their shoulder to the wheel, that will produce results on the pitch.”

You could write something of Old Testament dimensions deconstructing the many bad decisions that led to Falkirk’s decline, but the one that rankles most with Jamieson is the decision to scrap the academy back in 2017. Renowned for churning out talents like Scott Arfield and Stephen Kingsley, the academy was not only a core part of the club’s identity but a financial get-out-of- jail-free card allowing them to fill holes in the annual accounts with profits from player sales.

“It was a knee-jerk solution to a short-term problem, but the long-term damage it did was massive. The academy was bringing in an average of £400,000 a year, it was the goose that laid the golden egg – and we went and killed the goose! You can see why they could rationalise it at the time, but ultimately it was madness. It’s a real source of pride for the fans when you see boys like Arfield and Kingsley making their debuts for Falkirk at age 16 or 18, and we’ve missed that. We can’t go backwards, we are where we are, but it’s frustrating trying to build back to a place where you already were.”

Falkirk’s current administration is in the process of gradually rebuilding the academy, having relaunched their U16 and U18 sides and added five ‘modern apprentices’ to McGlynn’s squad. But it’s a long road back.

“We simply can’t continue to operate in League One. The cup run has helped us remain full-time for now, but if we weren’t to be successful next year the club would have to make a decision about what’s right longer-term, and it may well be that, for the following year, we’d have to consider hybrid or part-time. I think we just need to be honest about that – this year really needs to be our year.”

So Jamie Swinney told John and his co-host Ross Wayne on the Falkirk Daft podcast not long after the end of last season. Someone with more of a Machiavellian streak might just have chosen to withhold that particular piece of info, at a club where the squad hasn’t exactly responded well to pressure in the recent past, and where emotions in the stands are often at piano wire levels of tension. But after everything else the fans have been through since 2019, perhaps the least the Falkirk board feels it can do is be 100% transparent with them.

‘It’s important to be honest’

“The board seem to be doing everything right in terms of communication and the business side of things, and Jamie is a very open and honest guy, which is all you can ask for in a CEO,” says McInally. “Part-time would be a nightmare for a club Falkirk’s size, so it’s a worry.”

“Absolutely it’s important to be honest about that with fans,” adds Jamieson. “The stadium costs what it costs no matter what league you’re in, and gas bills, rent, rates etc – they are what they are. You can get about £1.8 million as a mid-table Premiership team just for being there, whereas our entire turnover in League One is about £2 million, and you’ve got to slog your guts out to get that £2 million selling sponsorship, tickets, hospitality. If your income drops, you either have to fill that loss every year, or cut the football budget. And if you cut the football budget below a certain level then you can’t be full-time any more. So we’re trying to remain full-time as long as we can, but at the same time saying to the fans, ‘This can’t go on forever.’”

When the disappointment of those heavy defeats against Airdrie in the play-offs and Inverness Caledonian in the Scottish Cup semis began to subside back in early summer, consolation for Falkirk fans could be found in a quick glance at the line-up for season 2023/24 in League One. No Raith, Partick or Dunfermline to stand in their way, a group of middling teams left behind – the Bairns’ path to promotion looked smoother than it has at any point since 2019. But then Cove and Hamilton Accies – both freshly relegated from the Championship – embarked on aggressive recruitment drives. And what if Queen of the South continue their progression under Marvin Bartley, or Montrose return to the levels they were at a couple of seasons ago? Falkirk are clear favourites with the bookies, and rightly so, but if their experiences in the third tier have taught them anything, it’s that nothing at this level is quite as easy as it looks.

“I do think some of the developments over the summer suggest it might be a little trickier than I initially thought it would be,” notes McGuigan, well-briefed on what to expect from a John McGlynn side in League One having watched his own club Raith win the division twice under the former Hearts gaffer. “We’ve been here before, but I don’t see Cove, QOTS, Montrose or Alloa finishing above Falkirk. I have been impressed with Hamilton’s signings, though, and I think there’s an argument they look stronger this campaign than they did last year in the Championship.

“One thing I would say about John McGlynn is that all the success he had with us second time around was built around Regan Hendry in the middle of the park. Take that away and his passing style really fell down at Stark’s Park. At Falkirk he hasn’t a player anywhere near that class and – based on last season – still one way of playing. Falkirk might have the best squad in the division, but unless he has all the constituent parts for his very particular style of play, or new ways to get around teams who have figured him out, it could be a very tight race.”

John McGlynn: Bucking the trend

A no-nonsense character who’s now in his early 60s yet still favours the shellsuit and snapback look, McGlynn is unlikely to have an Ange Postecoglou-style cult of personality spring up around him any time soon, but remains about as good a manager as you could hope to attract in League One, despite bucking the overall trend in a division now largely dominated by up-and-coming bosses in their 30s or early 40s. Having been in the job since May of last year, he also has the curious honour of already being one of Falkirk’s longest-serving managers since Peter Houston.

When the summer transfer window opened, McGlynn knew exactly what his budget was and exactly who he wanted to spend it on, pouncing quicker than a professional shopper on Black Friday to make seven signings before the end of June. Almost all of the new boys have either worked under him before or have significant League One experience, traits McInally hopes will help Falkirk develop the ruthless streak they often lacked last season. “We were outdone last season by a very good Dunfermline side, and it pains me to say that, absolutely pains me!” he stresses. “Lots of clean sheets, lots of 1-0s. We might have played the better football, but they showed how to get out of this league, and it wasn’t anything fancy.”

Unsurprisingly given his business background, Jamieson looks at it as a question of cold, hard statistics and quarterly performance. “Each quarter you play against the same nine teams, so last season we got 17 in the first quarter, which is decent, then 13, pretty disappointing, then 24, which is incredible, then finished with another 13. So it was very up and down, whereas Dunfermline and Cove the season before that were hitting between 18 and 22 points every quarter in order to win the league. So we just need to take that extra step this season and get to that level of consistency, because the best way out of this league is just to go and win it, and not have to worry about the play-offs. “It’s obvious that we’d rather be in the Championship than League One, but the board always said it might take two seasons. Two seasons from when we started, that is – we’ll just ignore the seasons before that!”

Towards the end of my chat with John, perhaps just because I’m starting to feel like a bit of a sadist, I ask him for his favourite memories as a Falkirk fan. Suddenly it’s like the clouds have parted and the sun has come out, bringing with it images of Alex Totten in his kilt at Ibrox in ’97, Collin Samuel eviscerating Hearts at Brockville in ’03, and Bob McHugh stunning Hibernian in the Premiership play-offs a mere seven years ago at the new ground.

It’s a reminder that no matter how gruelling they feel at the time, banter eras are only temporary, and can never fully absorb a club’s history and identity. The day will surely come when Scottish football’s schadenfreude circus has to up sticks and move to another town. Whether that day comes for Falkirk at the end of this season is, as we’ve established, far from guaranteed. But don’t go buying Duran Duran tickets for next May, put it that way.

This article first appeared in Issue 29 which was published in September 2023.

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