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