Falkirk is a small town located in the Central Lowlands of Scotland, populated by just over 30,000 people it is renowned for many attractions like the Falkirk Wheel, the remnants of the Antonine Wall and for being the town where John Logie Baird was born – the legendary inventor of the television.
One thing the small town isn’t renowned for though is its football, but due to the talented emerging youth in its biggest local team, Falkirk is being put on the map.
Whether that map is the footballing map or not, the team is certainly on its way to bigger and better things led by its outstanding manager and his emphasis on producing quality young players. Currently Falkirk F.C competes in the SFL’s First Division – the league below the SPL – sitting 2nd in the table. They have reached the Challenge Cup Final – which is effectively the SFL Cup – and have also reached the Scottish Cup last 16 as well as being knocked out in the semi-finals of the Co-Operative Insurance Cup (League Cup) to the hands of SPL leaders Celtic.
All this has been achieved with a squad who have an average age of 21 consisting of 13 players born in Scotland, 8 of whom have been developed by the Falkirk youth system. It is testament to, first of all, the youth set-up led by Craig McPherson, for producing players who have achieved a relatively decent level of success.
The Falkirk youth system has produced several decent players like Scott Arfield (Huddersfield), Darren Barr (Hearts) and Ryan Flynn (Sheffield Utd) but none have came through in a side which enjoyed so much success with players who they grew up with.
Training out of the University of Stirling campus, Falkirk’s Academy has access to some of the best facilities in Scotland. Boasting seven grass pitches as well as two all-weather pitches along with fitness and strength & conditioning centres, the headquarters at Scotland’s University of Sporting excellence rank highly compared to the other academies at the top level of Scottish football.
The academy was first led by Ross Wilson (current Football business director at Watford F.C) and Eddie May (former Motherwell, Falkirk and Hibs defender) before being maintained and developed by Craig ‘Hagi’ McPherson who played in successful Falkirk sides – namely the promotion winning side in 2005.
McPherson has been directly involved with overseeing the emergence of Murray Wallace, Jay Fulton, Kieran Duffie and Craig Sibbald into the Bairns first team, contributing heavily to the success they have enjoyed this season.
The high-point of Falkirk’s season so far was both encounters with the Old Firm in the Co-operative Insurance Cup. Rangers succumbed to the clinical side of Pressley’s team, beaten 3-2 at the Falkirk Stadium in the 3rd round. On that night, Falkirk’s 22 goal striker Farid El-Alagui demonstrated his irrefutable prowess in front of goal, scoring twice against the Scottish champions.
From that point, they went from strength to strength in the League as well as beating Dundee United in the League Cup quarter finals setting up a semi-final meeting with Celtic which underlined this special batch of kid’s credentials in Scottish football.
Although going down 3-1 to an overpowering Celtic side packed full of players experienced at domestic, European and international level, the youthful Bairns more than held their own in what would be a defining match for several in their side.
Mancunian Kallum Higginbotham impressed with a display filled with pace and poise, superbly setting up the teams equaliser. The midfielder operated between midfield and attack and tormented the usually impressive Victor Wanyama before tiring towards the end. This performance led Huddersfield to sign the midfielder on transfer deadline day for a six-figure sum, an indictment of the fantastic work Pressley put in with a frustrating but evidently talented player. Of the young players tipped to have an impact on the match, Murray Wallace, Kieran Duffie and Jay Fulton impressed despite the defeat.
The ever-reliable Duffie proved why he is establishing himself as one of the most capable full backs in Scotland, demonstrating an ability to attack and defend with equal competence.
18-year-old centre half Wallace kept the deadly Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes quiet for most of the afternoon until demonstrating a lapse of concentration prevalent in many defenders at that age. Tall, physically capable and decent on the ball, Wallace showed enough in that match to merit a move to Huddersfield days later in a £700,000 move, setting up the realistic opportunity of playing Championship football next season.
It was the son of a former Celtic youngster who made the headlines for Falkirk, with his equalising goal late in the first half. Showing a calmness in front of goal which belied his years, 18-year-old Jay Fulton – son of former Hearts midfielder Stevie Fulton – seized his moment giving his side a lifeline back in to the game. Moreover, his overall play was full of sublime touches and accurate passing posing a constant threat for Celtic’s Honduran left-back Emilio Izaguirre who, significantly, was removed from the match at half-time. Fulton will undoubtedly be attracting attention at the Falkirk Stadium from now on, but staying put for the foreseeable future will serve his development better than if he moved.
One player who didn’t feature at Hampden was Craig Sibbald, who is arguably the most promising of all the Falkirk Bairns. Identified and developed by the SFA-back football programme at Graeme High School in Falkirk, the 16-year-old has already made 19 appearances this season – even though he missed 2 months of the campaign with a knee injury. He has immense pace – albeit physically small – and demonstrates all the required attributes to be a top winger. An eye for goal, as well as the ability to beat a man, Sibbald has shown enough promise for scouts of Manchester City, Liverpool, Spurs and Aston Villa to witness his displays first hand and it seems only a matter of time before Falkirk are forced to sell their prized possession.
Pressley appreciates the effect the young players have, ‘they bring an energy, ambition and sense of tradition that’s sometimes sorely missing.’ vowing to maintain and add to the side as much as he can.
It would be a wonderful tribute to those players, the manager and the youth academy if Pressley could hold on to his talented kids and make a sustained bid to return the club to Scottish football’s top flight. It will be more a case of when than if they make it to SPL.
For many of the players, they are showing all the appropriate signs that they will make it to the top whether it’s away from Falkirk or not.
By Jonny Boyle
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona