The arrival of Gary Holt in the Falkirk dressing-room provoked a frenzy among the Bairns’ youngsters as they desperately “Googled” the name of their new manager in a bid to learn something of the shock successor to Steven Pressley.
Club skipper Darren Dods was just as taken aback at Holt’s arrival, the former Kilmarnock midfielder’s name having never made the list of potential candidates for the vacancy caused by Pressley’s defection to Coventry City which included the likes of John McGlynn, Russell Latapy and David Weir.
However, while Holt was something of a mystery to his younger team-mates, Dods simply told them: “I’ve played against him,” testament to the big defender’s longevity in this his 17th season as a professional football player, a career which stretches back to his own teenage days at Easter Road and now encompasses more than 550 first-team appearances.
It is, however, a scenario to which Dods is becoming increasingly accustomed as, at the age of 37, he can tell Falkirk youngsters Jay and Dale Fulton that he played against their father, Steve, and 17-year-old Thomas Grant that his dad, Brian, was once a Hibs team-mate.
Dods, naturally, is seen as something of a father figure in what is largely a home-grown team of impressive young players. Holt will no doubt look to Dods to fulfil such a role as he takes charge of the Bairns for the first time in Saturday’s William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibs.
“It’s a strange feeling,” the former Scotland B cap admitted. “You look at the teamsheets and see dates of birth in the mid-1990s. I had left school and was at Easter Road by then. You realise just how young they are when you look at Jay and Dale (Fulton) and remember playing against (their dad) Steve and then look at Thomas Grant and think ‘I played alongside his dad’.
“Gary Holt’s name hadn’t been quoted at all as possibly becoming our new manager so I think everyone was surprised. Most of the young boys were asking ‘who’s that?’ and were busy googling his name. I was able to tell them I’d played against him when he was with Kilmarnock.”
Young the Falkirk side may be but it is a team rich in talent and one which, Dods insisted, won’t be fazed by the occasion on Saturday, pointing to how many of today’s side faced Celtic in last season’s League Cup semi-final at the same venue. And, he claimed, it is one which is brimming with confidence having notched up a run of four successive wins while Pat Fenlon’s side head for Hampden having suffered three straight defeats and still nursing a sense of bitter disappointment at having thrown away their chance of a top-six finish in the SPL.
Those respective records, Dods believes, puts all the pressure on his old club, the expectation of the more than 16,000 Hibs fans who will head for the lunchtime showdown in Glasgow being that Fenlon’s players will beat their First Division opponents. He said: “After playing Celtic last year with their quality we wanted to avoid them in the draw for the semis and, after that, we weren’t too fussed as to whether we got Hibs or Dundee United. Hibs’ season seems to have drifted a bit and they must be feeling a bit low having been up there in the SPL table all season only to miss out on the top six.
“We did well last season, finishing third and getting to the League Cup semi-final and sometimes it’s hard for young players. This season didn’t start too well, we struggled a bit but we’ve come back really well and we’re only three points off our total for last season with four games to go.
“I think it was a bit of a shock to the younger players, for many Steven was the only manager they’d known, they’d got used to him being here every day. We had a wee blip but we’ve got over it and with four straight wins, which was important as we didn’t want to be going into the semi on the back of a poor run.”
Restoring confidence was, Dods believes, largely down to the experience of Alex Smith, the Bairns’ director of football and, of course, a familiar figure in Scottish football and one with a huge knowledge of the game who took interim control of the team as Falkirk searched for a new boss. And he feels Smith will, as he was for Pressley, be a guiding hand for 40-year-old Holt, recruited from Norwich City’s Academy and catapulted into his first managerial role.
Dods said: “All the boys know Alex well and he knows everything about each of them. He’s always about, watching the Under-17s, the Under-15s.
“I am sure the new manager will come in with his own ideas and he has a big game to start with but he’ll be able to lean on Alex when he feels it necessary.
“Gary’s arrival was something of a surprise but it looks as if the club has really done their homework. I knew he’d gone to England but I wasn’t aware he was working with Norwich’s Academy so he comes with great experience of dealing with young players and we have plenty of them.”
The managerial hiatus caused by Pressley’s departure hasn’t, Dods revealed, hindered Falkirk’s preparation for their clash with Hibs. He said: “I know Alex has been to see them as has Stevie Crawford so they’ll no doubt have plenty of notes for the new manager to look at as well as DVDs of their recent matches.”
And Dods believes the greater exposure given to SPL sides on television can aid the Bairns. He said: “I noticed Pat Fenlon has said he’s been to watch us a few times and he’ll be telling his players of what he sees as our strengths and weaknesses but the fact Hibs are often on the box means we can see first hand the guys we’ll be up against.”
It would come as no surprise if Fenlon has identified 27-goal Lyle Taylor as Falkirk’s dangerman while Dods won’t raise any eyebrows by marking down Leigh Griffiths, scorer of 23 goals for Hibs, as the opponent he has to keep a close eye on.
He said: “Lyle came up from Bournemouth and did really well. His form slipped a bit but he’s come back and scored in his last couple of games. He’s quite fast and can shoot with both feet so he’s a threat to any team. Leigh has done equally well for Hibs.
“He scored three and made the other when they beat Killie at Rugby Park and scored the winner in their semi against Aberdeen last season. Hibs maybe look too much to him for their goals and opposition teams keep him on a tight rein but he’s always a handful and inevitably he gets himself free and bags a goal.”
As he sees Holt at 40 become manager and a host of ex-opponents and former team-mates – including Ian Murray, Colin Cameron, Paul Hartley and Grant Murray – take up station in the dug-out, does Dods think it’s perhaps time he followed suit?
“I played with Andy Millen at Hibs and then Craig Brewster at Inverness but, while I don’t think I’ll be like them and go on into my 40s, I’d like to think I’ve got another year or two,” he insisted.
“I’ve been doing my coaching badges but, speaking to ex-players, they tell me to try to play as long as I can as you regret it the minute you stop playing so I’m happy to do that.”