AFTER building a reputation as a competitive Championship team, rather than wilting when a number of the big boys dropped into the second tier – and becoming somewhat of a cup specialist in the process – this season has been a tough one for Falkirk fans to endure.

A wretched start, following a scattergun approach to their summer recruitment, led to a group-stage exit in the Betfred Cup before the side lost their first three league matches. The results meant manager Paul Hartley and his backroom staff were paid off before the month of August was out.

Days later, Ray McKinnon – riding high at the top of the league with Morton at the time – was pinched from Cappielow. Falkirk denied any wrong doing but were recently fined £60,000 (£20,00 of which is suspended) for breaching two rules in their pursuit of the manager and his assistant Darren Taylor. The club has said it is “considering its position” on the matter.

Appointed on transfer deadline day, McKinnon was still able to get one deal over the line – and what a bit of business Zak Rudden has turned out to be. After his goal helped Falkirk rescue a point at relegation rivals Partick Thistle last month, the Rangers loanee told Falkirk TV that he was “just here to score f*cking goals” (see video below from around 1.52). And where would Falkirk be without those f-ing goals? On the verge of preparing for a campaign in Scotland’s third tier for the first time since the 1970s. That’s where.

Either side of that crucial equaliser in Maryhill, during a three-game stint, Rudden netted a winner against Ayr United and another equaliser in the 2-2 draw with Inverness. Earlier in the season, he scored three goals across two matches which saw the Bairns take maximum points from back-to-back away trips to Dunfermline and Inverness. Before that, Rudden scored the only two goals of the match in Falkirk’s first win of the season when they defeated Alloa.

Between then and January, McKinnon had his hands tied somewhat but did enough to keep his side within touching distance of their two closest rivals.

Sure, there have been low points, embarrassments even – none more so than when they shipped four goals to their local rivals in a disastrous Scottish Cup exit – but in between those there were specks of light that flickered at the end of what seemed like an endless dark tunnel.

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As well as Rudden’s goals, another factor played a huge part in ensuring those flickers of light didn’t extinguish: not losing to the two other sides in the bottom three. Including Saturday’s victory, McKinnon has now won twice and drawn three times is five encounters with Alloa and Thistle.

Then when January came around, McKinnon learned the lessons from his predecessor and recruited smartly. His side remain unbeaten since the tun of the year.

The likes of Davis Keillor-Dunn, Mark Waddington and Ross Maclean have added depth to the positions providing support to Rudden and Deimantas Petravicius – one of the few partnerships which was blossoming well before those new signings were added.

A number of recruits have also been added further back, from goalkeeper to defensive midfield, addressing a number of problem areas and putting the finishing touches to a solid spine to the side.

Saturday’s win takes Falkirk out of the bottom two for the first time this season but it will be the next match, a week on Saturday when they face an on-form Dundee United, that will be a real test in how far McKinnon’s side has come.

Annan Athletic arrest their post-Rutkiewicz slump

WHEN Kevin Rutkiewicz left his role as Annan Athletic’s assistant manager in October to take up the reigns at Stirling Albion, the Galabankies’ form fell off a cliff.

Sitting in fourth place in League Two at the time, Annan went on to win their next match, against Elgin, before failing to win any of their next eight in all competitions. Peter Murphy’s side only dropped one position, although it did allow a few sides to close in on them as the middle of the table tightened up.

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Kevin Rutkiewicz, right

Meanwhile, after a slow start to his managerial career, Rutkiewicz’s reinvigorated Stirling side are currently on a run of one defeat in 12, lifting them from eighth to fifth, four points behind Annan in fourth.

Whether or not Rutkiewicz’s departure was a mere coincidence, Darren Barr has since been appointed as Murphy’s assistant and Annan themselves are now in inspired form, losing just one of their last seven league matches – with that defeat coming against Rutkiewicz’s Stirling side. 

Most recently, in their last three games, Annan recorded back-to-back victories over the top two, as well as a draw at home to third-placed Clyde at the weekend. Central to their turnaround in form has been the recent performances from Tommy Muir who after a decent start to the season has embarked upon a barren spell of 15 matches without a goal. 

The striker has since scored five in is last five games, including a double in the 3-0 defeat of Peterhead.

Was the answer blowing in the 50mph gales?

WHEN a goalkeeper takes a bye-kick and it almost ends up in Norway via going out for a corner, then the referee has a decision to make.

With just 12 minutes on the clock, the League One game still goal-less, and blustery gales wreaking havoc, referee Craig Napier abandoned the match between Arbroath and Stranraer.

It was a sore one for the away players, staff and the few supporters that made the 364-mile round trip. Though even the club’s official Twitter account called the weather “the 12th man so far” minutes into the game.

Spare a thought also for the guys at Studio Something, who were up at the crack of dawn to travel up to the only ground in the UK that appears to have been built in the North Sea to film a feature for the brand spanking new TV show: A View From The Terrace (if you don’t mind the shameless plug), due to air on the upcoming BBC Scotland channel.

The referee predictably came in for some criticism, though it should be remembered that he is required to give the match every chance of going ahead.

And with the forecast saying that the winds were due to ease and conditions appearing to begin to settle during the teams’ warm-ups, Napier was put in a difficult situation.