Jamie MacDonald – 6
Arrived with a big reputation from Hearts and had big gloves to fill as Michael McGovern’s replacement. These factors resulted in high expectations from the Falkirk support. He can be hesitant when dealing with crosses and a failure to command his area has cost us a few goals throughout the season. He has improved as the season has gone on, making some great saves (notably against Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi final). It looks as though he’ll be on the move in the summer, with Kilmarnock looking likely. He’s been satisfactory this season but will be easier to replace than McGovern.
Kieran Duffie – 4
Injuries again meant that Kieran Duffie missed a large chunk of the season. Since returning to the side, his positioning has caused problems on a number of occasions. Duffie is generally an impressive athlete who offers a lot going forward, but lapses in concentration are his downfall. He’s still young and has impressed before, so a full preseason free of injury could result in a more steady 2015-16. At times this year however, Duffie has looked like the weakest link in our settled XI.
Peter Grant – 8
Grant was the last signing made by Gary Holt before his return to Norwich. Another youngster with little to no first team experience, it took a couple of months for Grant to nail down a place in the first team. Since then he has never looked back, quickly becoming a fans’ favourite. Improving with every appearance, he has drawn comparisons to a young Yogi Hughes.
After scoring the equaliser in a 3-3 draw at Easter Road, he celebrated with such vigour that a thread appeared on Hibs.net asking if it warranted a letter being sent to the SPFL in complaint. He can be prone to kicking the ball in the direction he is facing at times and may be too one paced to play at the top level, but by all accounts he is a model professional and has been one of the undoubted highlights of the season.
David McCracken – 7
For a player who has struggled with injuries for years, it is impressive that McCracken has made forty appearances this season. He has provided much needed experience in a young backline and leads by example. Peter Grant has doubtless benefited from playing alongside a solid pro like McCracken. One of the highlights of the season was his incredible finish in stoppage time to secure a 1-0 win against Hibs. His lack of pace and mobility at times mean that he can struggle with nippy or skilful strikers, which leads to some Falkirk fans treating him as a bit of a scapegoat. It will be interesting to see if he can hold down a starting slot with Aaron Muirhead signed up for next season. For me, McCracken has done little wrong to merit being dropped. As long as we remain at Championship level, McCracken should prove to be a reliable player for another couple of years.
Luke Leahy – 9
This time last year, if you had told Falkirk supporters that Luke Leahy would be on the radar of a number of English Championship teams in a potential seven figure transfer, the collective reaction would’ve been to burst into laughter. Signed as an attacking midfielder by Steven Pressley, he has spent a couple of years doing very little of note. However, he was converted into a left back by Gary Holt, finishing last season in that position in the development side before slowly being introduced to the first XI this season by Peter Houston.
His game to game improvement has been astonishing, with many Falkirk fans nominating him as the player of the season. Defensively he is sound, and he offers an outlet going forward with his energy ensuring he can bomb up and down the wing for 90 minutes. Examples of this were his perfect volleyed cross for Craig Sibbald’s winning goal in the Scottish Cup quarter-final in Dumfries, and two incredible goals in separate games against Alloa. If Leahy moves on in the summer he will be very difficult to replace, which is a stunning sentence for me to type given his squad status at the start of the season.
Alan Maybury – 2
I am going to preface this by saying that any criticism of Alan Maybury the player should not be taken as a slight on Alan Maybury the coach. He has done a commendable job with the development squad and this was surely the primary reasoning for Houston bringing him in. However, a couple of injuries early in the season meant that Maybury found himself in the starting XI for the month of August. My abiding memory of him in a Falkirk shirt will be the roasting he took at Tynecastle as a rampant Hearts team tore us apart at the end of the month. It wasn’t for a lack of effort, but Maybury was completely done by the time he played for Falkirk. I think he would admit this himself.
Liam Dick – 4
Before Luke Leahy’s rise to prominence, Liam Dick was in prime position to be the starting left back for the season. He was solid if slightly inexperienced when called upon this season and he is still a teenager, but he has not had much of a chance to shine in the first team as of yet. If Leahy leaves in the summer, he may be given the opportunity to make the spot his own.
Aaron Muirhead – 3
When Aaron Muirhead has been on the park, he’s done a decent job. However, he has been injured almost since the day he signed. He’s shown enough throughout his career to suggest he will be a useful player at this level next season, but for now he simply hasn’t played enough games.
Joe Shaughnessy – 4
A fairly forgettable player who was shoehorned in at right back after Maybury struggled early in the season. He was big, strong and pretty good in the air, but he didn’t offer much in an attacking sense and looked uncomfortable at full back. It was clear to see he belonged in he middle. I felt he performed to an okay standard in difficult circumstances, but there weren’t too many tears when he returned to parent club Aberdeen. He’d be a solid squad player at a club like Falkirk in the upper-mid level of the Championship, so I was surprised to see St Johnstone move to sign him for next year. I can only assume he’ll be sitting on the bench.
Mark Kerr – 8
Kerr returned in January, but I feel it is most fitting to review him before the rest of the midfield. His signing was met with a mixed response from Falkirk fans, and it is true that he is not the same player who left the club in 2003. Kerr has adapted his game with age, and he sits in front of the defence allowing others to go forward.
His best quality is undoubtedly that he improves other players around him. Having Mark Kerr keeping the ball ticking over and protecting the defence allows Duffie and Leahy to provide width in attack, as well as giving Will Vaulks and Tom Taiwo license to go box to box in a midfield diamond. This is where both are most effective. He rarely gives the ball away and inspires confidence in the rest of the team.
There is an argument to be made that Kerr is one of our most important players in the formation Houston likes to employ. He will be a big miss in the Scottish Cup final, but I am looking forward to seeing him stroll through games with a cigar in his mouth again next season.
Will Vaulks – 8
Vaulks is a good footballer but he is an even better athlete. Joining as a defender who was told he was too small to play centre back, he has found a home in the centre of midfield where he is at his best going box to box. He likes a tackle and his energy is arguably his best quality, but he is a capable passer who can shoot as well. This was shown when he scored a screamer of a goal from 30 yards out against Cowdenbeath, which was followed up with some impressive gymnastics to celebrate.
If I have a criticism it has that he perhaps tries to replicate this too often, taking shots from range when he could show more composure. It’s tough to do justice to Vaulks in descriptive terms, he can do almost everything; he’s a hard worker, and when he moves on it will be to a higher level than the Scottish Championship. He will deserve it too.
Tom Taiwo – 6
It’s been a mixed bag for Tom Taiwo this season. He quickly endeared himself to the Falkirk support with a couple of classy goals in a victory over Dunfermline at East End Park, but on too many occasions he has let games pass him by. Part of the problem has been playing too deep in the midfield, with Taiwo often restricted to a more defensive role in the middle part of the season. His passing ability is his best strength, and he needs to be allowed to affect the game further up the park. It is no coincidence that his performances have improved since Mark Kerr joined in January. He has finished the campaign strongly, and if he is used in his most effective position next year he could be a very useful player.
Craig Sibbald – 10
It is frightening to think that Craig Sibbald is only 19 years old. There are sections of the Falkirk support who have given him stick for not being physical enough or not “getting stuck in”. These people do not understand football, and even they have been silenced this year.
Sibbald has been a joy to watch again this season, surpassing anything he has done previously. He has always been most effective when played centrally behind the striker, and he has been given the opportunity to influence games in this position far more regularly than in previous years. His vision, passing ability and skill in tight spaces mark him out as a special player, and he has stepped up at crucial moments. His winning goal at Tynecastle showed him at his best, with an overwhelmingly splendid dummy leaving the Hearts defender on the floor before he finished sublimely.
His header against Hibs in the semi final of the Scottish Cup was the highlight of the season (so far) and it was fitting that it was scored by Sibbald. Houston has still managed to shunt him out on to the left wing at times but he has excelled there as well. At the club’s end of season awards night, Sibbald won Goal of the Season, Young Player of the Season, Supporters’ Player of the Season and Players’ Player of the Season – a clean sweep. At the age of 16, he trained at Manchester United with Jay Fulton, the former Falkirk player who has just won Swansea’s Young Player of the Season. Sibbald is better than Fulton and will go on to enjoy similar success at whichever club is lucky enough to secure his services when he moves on.
Blair Alston – 5
It has been a tough season for Alston, who has been in and out of the team. He has not shown his best form, and can no longer really be considered a youngster at 23. His effort and commitment can never be questioned, and he covers every blade of grass when he is on the park. However, his touch is often laboured and he never looks in control of the ball the way in the fashion of Sibbald or McGrandles.
In Houston’s preferred formation it may be difficult to find a place for Alston. I have seen enough in previous years to suggest he can come back stronger next campaign, but more seasons like this will result in him remaining on the fringes of the Falkirk XI rather than moving to a higher level like many of his fellow youth team products.
David Smith – 3
A frustrating player, I am actually more positive about David Smith than many of the Falkirk support. As a starter in the early part of the season, he was a passenger in many games, hugging the touchline and not involving himself in the play to anywhere near the extent expected. A string of poor performances then saw him drop to the substitutes bench.
At times his delivery into the box has been good, but he seems afraid to take full backs on with the ball at his feet and was much too passive too often. If he is willing to take more responsibility then he could be a useful impact player. If not, he will drop down the leagues once his contract expires at the end of next season. He has not offered enough yet in a Falkirk shirt.
Alex Cooper – 3
Another player who began the season as a starter, but quickly found himself restricted to substitute appearances. Cooper has shown glimpses of ability but he has been inconsistent and frustrating to watch for the majority of the year. Between the start of 2015 and the middle of March, he made only one appearance, and it looked like his time as Falkirk would be over. However, he has returned to making sporadic substitute appearances at the end of the campaign, including a great goal away to Alloa. Similar to Smith, if he shows more then he could be a useful impact player, but to this point it has been another disappointing Houston signing.
Conor McGrandles – 8
He only played a handful of games but I couldn’t give McGrandles a low rating. Prior to his move to Norwich he was our best player alongside Sibbald. The size of the transfer fee has been a point of contentious debate amongst Falkirk supporters all season, but there’s no doubting that it massively hurt the team on the pitch and was one of the key reasons we had such a poor couple of months in September and October. I have a suspicion he will join Hamilton on loan next season, where I expect him to be a standout. He is a tidy player who can do a bit of everything.
Owain Tudur Jones – 0
Played five games and then retired injured. Even when on the park, he did not look match fit and plodded around offering little. He slowed the game down when we were in possession and featured in a winning team only once. If he hadn’t been crocked we may not have signed Mark Kerr. He seems like a top boy on Twitter but he was brutal for us.
Olu Durojaiye – 1
Olu played a handful of games before joining Brechin on loan, where also he also struggled to make the team. He gets a point for being more use than Jones. He showed promise when he was first signed by Holt but he has struggled for the last 18 months now. It is difficult to see where he goes next.
Rory Loy – 8
Rory Loy’s injury effectively killed any chance we had of making the playoffs. Loy has been a fantastic player for Falkirk in both seasons he has been at the club. He can do a bit of everything and is much more than a goalscorer. When playing with a partner, his workrate and intelligent movement free up space for others to get free in the box. He is intelligent and can finish in a variety of ways, although he curiously has a terrible record from penalties.
He found it tough at times playing up front by himself in the early part of the season, but this was not his fault. He was not given enough support from a thin squad which left us infuriatingly short in attacking areas. It will be interesting to see how he does at Dundee next year given the competition for places and step up in level. His place in the divisional Team of the Season in what was an unusually strong Championship suggests he will handle the step up without much concern.
John Baird – 7
Seven goals in 17 games is a good rate of return for a player who does most of his best work around the box rather than directly in front of it. When played with Rory Loy, Baird was excellent. The pair linked well and in running the channels they created openings to allow the likes of Sibbald and Vaulks to break forward. Baird found things more difficult when Loy was hit with an injury. He has missed some decent chances when the goalscoring burden was placed squarely on his shoulders, particularly at home where he strangely failed to score a single goal. He is an easy player to like given his workrate and desire, and he should have a good season next year if Houston can find a quality striker for him to play alongside.
Botti Biabi – 4
Poor signings meant that Botti was thrust into the first team before he was ready in my opinion. At times he has shown great potential, particularly when he was brought on as a substitute against Dunfermline and created two goals in a matter of minutes. He further endeared himself to the Falkirk support by headbutting a Fifer a short time later, resulting in a lengthy ban. His effort can’t be faulted, but he has looked too raw for the moment. Poor signings and other circumstances mean, however, that he is likely to be the first player called upon in the final if we need a striker on the park. He is the player at the club who would benefit most from a loan move next season.
Taylor Morgan – 0
The most incredible thing about Taylor Morgan is that Houston gave him a trial for over a month and still decided to sign him. Morgan has undoubtedly given his all, but I can’t think what Houston saw in training to think he was capable of playing in the Scottish Championship. At one stage in a poorly attended midweek game against Cowdenbeath, he tripped over the ball and the majority of the crowd laughed. He was substituted shortly after and I felt a bit sorry for him. I’ll be kind and say he was not up to the standard required.
Scott Shepherd – 1
After a strong finish to the previous season, Shepherd would have been hoping to kick on and position himself around the first team. However, he has failed to make an impact in his substitute appearances and was ineffective in a loan spell at Stirling. Biabi and Kevin O’Hara (who is 16 and made the top flight’s development league team of the season) have jumped ahead of him in the pecking order.
Rory Boulding – 0
Another player who Houston took on trial and inexplicably still decided to sign. Boulding made a handful of appearances doing next to nothing before disappearing. His signing left us short up front, necessitating the signings of Baird and Morgan. I was stunned when Livingston decided to pick up Boulding again toward the tail end of the season.
Peter Houston – 5
Many of the problems Houston has run into this season have been of his own making. A number of dreadful signings have left the squad incredibly thin. Our strongest XI (MacDonald/Duffie/Grant/McCracken/Leahy/Kerr/Vaulks/Taiwo/Sibbald/Loy/Baird) has looked pretty handy when we’ve been able to get them all on the pitch, but this has only happened in a handful of games. Players who were either past it, injured or simply not up to scratch have meant we have permanently been one or two niggles away from a crisis all season. This has not been more apparent than in the Scottish Cup. Players like Jones and Boulding had to be replaced with Kerr and Baird, who were both cup tied having played for Queen of the South.
Taking players from other Scottish teams was also something of a theme. Of the twelve players Houston signed over the course of the season, only Taylor Morgan was not known to Scottish football fans, and he came recommended by Billy Reid. Five players arrived in the summer from Hearts and Hibs teams who were relegated. For a man who was head of scouting at Celtic, this has been frustrating and unimaginative. The league campaign was a disappointment as finishing seven points behind Queen of the South with a goal difference of zero needs to be considered a failure.
In individual games, Houston’s tactics have made all the difference. In the game where we became the only team to beat Hearts, the team pressed the ball high up the park and enjoyed great success. Houston also figured out Hibs, quickly noting their weakness to crosses which resulted in two wins and a draw in the league and a Scottish Cup semi final victory. Reaching the Scottish Cup final with a club of Falkirk’s stature is an achievement which should be lauded, even if we have not had to face a side from the top flight during our run. Houston has also been able to get the most out of Craig Sibbald, something which Pressley and Holt before him only managed in spells. Having McGrandles sold from under his nose so close to deadline day in August undoubtedly had a negative effect on his plans as well, which needs to be viewed as a mitigating circumstance to some extent.
On balance, Houston’s record with Falkirk can be viewed as being very average. For me the most annoying part of the season has been the belief that we are not far away from being a capable team at Championship level. Next season, Houston cannot afford to make more poor signings, which have limited his ability to make game changing substitutions or adequately cover for injuries and suspension.
(I reserve the right to bump this up to 10/10 if we win the Scottish Cup on Saturday)
WRITTEN BY GORDON SNEDDEN
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