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Houston prepares for lift-off after return reignites fire for the battle

Many football fans in Scotland are savouring the imminent 2014-15 Championship season - and not least Peter Houston, the Falkirk manager.

Peter Houston will lead Falkirk into a highly competitive Championship containing three of Scotland's biggest clubs. Picture: SNS/Gary Hudson
Peter Houston will lead Falkirk into a highly competitive Championship containing three of Scotland's biggest clubs. Picture: SNS/Gary Hudson

With Rangers, Hibs and Hearts all preparing for the battle which commences this weekend, Houston speaks in blunt fashion about the 10 months ahead.

"Rangers, Hibs and Hearts better be aware of this - some of the games are going to be like old-fashioned Junior cup ties," he says. "You are going to have to be physically and mentally really switched on to get out of this league. For all the superior budgets of the big clubs, they're going to have to work their balls off to win some matches. It's going to be a really, really tough league."

Houston didn't think he would have found himself here, sitting chatting inside the Falkirk Stadium, but his return to a management role came after a hush-hush call in May from Alex Smith, the father-figure at Falkirk, at a time when the club was seeking a replacement for Gary Holt, who was leaving for Norwich City.

After four years as Dundee United manager, Houston had been hired as a special scout for Celtic in December, 2013, and loved every minute of it. But the lure of 'the dugout' - if such a thing still exists - was too good to turn down.

"I really enjoyed my time at Celtic, but there is no doubt that, when Falkirk called and asked if I'd like to return to the front line, it rekindled a spark in my belly. It felt nice to be wanted again," he adds.

"The fact is, the trend now in Scottish football is for young mangers to get the jobs. Look at Alan Archibald, Allan Johnston, Gary Locke and others...very few older managers these days are getting the top jobs. Even Ronny Deila at Celtic is only 38 - still pretty young.

"I don't know if this is true, but I heard that when Hibs got all their applications in for their recent vacant job, they parked 'the usual suspects' applicants to one side, and put all the others - the fresh faces like Alan Stubbs - in a separate pile to be looked at.

"So I've come back to Falkirk, a club I played for and have a tremendous respect for. It was maybe the only club of its size I would have left my Celtic job for, given my past here as a player, and my respect for this place. This is a club held in high esteem by its supporters and directors."

Some see Falkirk as a dark-horse contender in the exciting Championship months that lie ahead. Given the challenge facing him, Houston says that Smith, the still fresh-faced old-timer, is invaluable as a source of information and debate.

"I have a strict budget in place here, and I'll not go above it," says Houston. "It can sometimes be tweaked a wee bit here and there and, in fact, I've still got some money left to bring in two new players - money for two wages, that is.

"In my managerial career to date - and I'm now 56 - I've never bought a player in my life. I don't know what that's like. It just shows how much the game has changed over the years.

"I sit here and listen to Alex talk about how he once spent £550,000 on Hans Gilhaus (at Aberdeen) and others down the years. I'm thinking, 'I've never, ever paid a transfer fee as a manager'. I nearly once spent 20-grand on Dougie Imrie when I was at Dundee United, but Hamilton beat me to him, out-bidding me by about a grand. Youth is the way we'll go at Falkirk, and we've got some right good players coming through our academy - players better than I'd expected."

Houston is fascinating when he talks about his time at Celtic. For seven months he recently worked behind the scenes at the club, scouting Europe for players, and says it has transformed his view of football. "I learned a load of stuff in that job. Celtic were a fantastic club to work for," he explains. "In my opinion John Park [the chief scout] runs a terrific department. Celtic have scouting lists there where they earmark at least four quality players for every position. They trawl through games, they identify players, and then have them watched. For example, even before I joined Celtic, they sent me to Norway to have a look at Stefan Johansen, having done all their homework on him.

"The Celtic scouting network can name any player like that - in the flick of your fingers. There are young players today all over Europe joining English clubs - but Celtic know all about them. It really opened my eyes to it. My football knowledge, having worked at Celtic, has increased tenfold.

"I loved my time at there but, being honest, I did miss the day-to-day at the sharp end. I'd sometimes look out the window and see the guys training at Lennoxtown and wish I was out there, doing stuff with them. But it was a terrific insight for me being at Celtic."

The question is, even with all that fresh knowledge, what can Houston do to force his aptly-named Bairns into the top-four this season and a play-off spot? He has certainly added experience to Falkirk, in players like Jamie McDonald and Tom Taiwo, with Alan Maybury an already impressive addition as a Falkirk player-coach.

However, Houston returns to one of his strongest convictions: that the Championship this coming season will be no place for faint hearts or minds.

He says: "It's going to be a massive challenge for the clubs - including the big three. Possibly it will be a better league than the top flight, in terms of the size of clubs that are in it, though that might not necessarily be a good thing for Scottish football as a whole. But, outside of Celtic, you've got in Rangers, Hibs and Hearts three huge clubs in Scotland.

"Games against these clubs will take care of themselves. It's the other games - such as ours against Cowdenbeath away tomorrow - which will really count. Like I said: these will be like Junior cup ties, on tight pitches, in unglamorous surroundings.

"I think the Championship will be open-ended. None of the big three will like coming to places like Falkirk. They won't like going to the astroturf down at Queen of the South. They won't like going to Cowdenbeath, which will be a new experience - you need to be like a dog sometimes to go there and win.

"You'll need to be mentally and physically full-on to win in the Championship. It's going to be a really tough league to get out of."

If things start off shakily, Houston jokes that he could hear the first 'tin tack' noises coming his way within weeks. "Three of my opening four league games are against Rangers, Hibs and Hearts, so I could be bottom of the league by the end of August. They'll be wanting me out," he explains. "Fourth place gets you a play-off place - that is to be remembered. In terms of budget, the big three of Rangers, Hibs and Hearts are way ahead of us. But, in football, it doesn't always work like that, does it?"

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