Promotional gimmick

With ground criteria set too high for Falkirk and rivals Inverness, the Scottish First Division champions could be going nowhere this summer, reports Neil White

As soon as the Scottish Cup third-round draw handed Hearts a trip to Fal­kirk’s dilapidated Brockville Park, the tie was flagged up as a possible shock. The Edin­burgh side sat third in the Scottish Prem­ier League, but this was their first game back after the win­ter break. Falkirk were leading the First Division and in fine form. More im­portantly, the tie was at Brockville, the sym­bol of their ongoing struggle against the footballing elite.

Only two-thirds of Falkirk’s ground meets safety regulations these days. For the Hearts match it was as full as legislation allows, 7,000 supporters, mostly stand­ing, a sliding tackle away from the action. The Bairns, the team that Scotland’s top flight doesn’t want, were 4-0 up after half an hour and never looked back.

The result put the club under the national spotlight, along with the extraordinary position it may be in at the end of the season. Falkirk and Inverness Cal­edonian Thistle haven’t quite shut down the First Div­ision title battle to a two-horse race, but you’d get long odds on the championship going anywhere else. And with the SPL restricting access with an im­movable set of stad­ium criteria, it looks like the league flag could be all the victors get. Neither club has the 10,000 all-seat ground the SPL demands: unless something gives between now and August, the champ­ions will be denied promotion and no club will be rel­egated from the top flight.

The implications are huge. Promotion and relegation are the foundations on which any league structure is based. With­out them, clubs in the lower leagues are forever in their place, knowing that no matter what they achieve on the pitch, they will never progress to the level their results merit. Without relegation, to­day’s SPL is cheapened massively. The ti­tle race has long been a battle between the Old Firm. But the league split, with two groups of six forming in March, means that half of the teams will be ful­filling meaningless fixtures for the final third of the season, knowing they are all safe from rel­egation. This may have been uppermost in the mind of Ian McCall when he quit as Falkirk manager at the end of January, to join the SPL’s bottom club, Dundee Utd.

It is not just the self-preservationists among the SPL who oppose Falkirk’s claim. Oth­er clubs have had to meet the criteria and paid a hefty price for doing so. Dundee worked round the clock to hit the deadline before they went up in 1998, St Mirren are still recovering from the cost of upgrading for a one-season stay in 2000 and Partick hastily in­stalled further seating at Firhill when they found them­selves on the brink of promotion last season. When Airdrieonians became the first Scottish club since Third Lanark in 1967 to go under last season, the financial hit of building a 10,000-seat stadium was a major contributory factor. If we had to do it, the argument goes, Falkirk will have to – no mat­ter the cost.

At last, it looks like Falkirk will have their new sta­dium. Just not by the March 31 deadline the SPL de­mands for entry for next season. General manager Craw­­ford Baptie has been with the club for 12 years and has seen several stadium plans collapse as Falkirk were denied promotion three times in consecutive sea­sons. He is confident that the move will finally happen, but he has no optimism about their chances of promotion this time around, especially as it would cost one SPL member their place in the league.

“The SPL have these rules and they will not change them. Not for anyone,” he says. “Any change would have to go to a ballot. We hope our credibility with other clubs will start to improve once we’ve started building the stadium. We’ve shown plans before, we’ve said ‘this is what we’re going to do’. By August, maybe before, we can undertake construction and we will have dem­on­strated that we will be ready next year.”

Falkirk have considered applying for groundsharing in the interim, but that is forbidden. A legal chal­lenge is an option, but is unlikely. Meanwhile, Falkirk remain on course for a championship that will be unique in Scottish foot­ball history. They will be the first ever reigning champions of the First Division.

From WSC 193 March 2003. What was happening this month