WHEN Falkirk visited Glasgow in the CIS Cup back in September, many expected John Hughes’ side to run a young Celtic team close. The First Division leaders had been absolutely motoring, having scored 32 goals in their previous eight games, but found themselves on the wrong end of a battering.

The result was a reminder not only of Celtic’s superiority, but that one-off cup games can produce scorelines which cannot be avenged. Falkirk will go into today’s Bell’s Challenge Cup final as deserved favourites, but any players showing signs of complacency will be reminded of the 8-1 nightmare at Parkhead.

That outcome could have knocked the stuffing out of other teams, but Falkirk have continued to draw and win matches vital to their hopes of achieving promotion, albeit by much lesser margins. With fine players of the experience of Russell Latapy and John O’Neil in the side, it will be a surprise if they don’t shake off the close attentions of Clyde and St Mirren and go on to win the league.

Latapy scored a beauty against Airdrie last Saturday, and is making the most of his remaining days as a player.

“It was no surprise at all, Russell scoring a goal like that,” pointed out Falkirk assistant manager Brian Rice. “He’s done it at the highest level as people at Trinidad and Tobago will tell you.

“The best thing is that he’s so humble with it. Off the pitch he’s an absolute diamond. He trains with all the kids and the young lads in the first team. He never mentions anything he’s done or who he’s played with – he just goes out on a Saturday and does his best.

“His ability on the ball is unquestionable. I didn’t see much of it, but people tell me he was absolutely outstanding at Hibs. It can only benefit our lads to play alongside somebody like that.”

A late flowering of Latapy’s career was unexpected. The player, after all, has never come remotely close to matching what he achieved at Hibs in 2001 prior to going off the rails with his friend Dwight Yorke.

“Certain players just want to wind their careers down,” agreed Rice, “but others see the last days coming and want to see if they can make the most of it, see if they can prolong it. I think Russell has got to that stage.

“He takes the reserves here along with John O’Neil, so he’s gaining some experience if he wants to go into coaching later. He’s got some great ideas on the game.”

Falkirk may not be scoring as many goals since the Celtic defeat, but they are also conceding less and that has coincided with the return of goalkeeper Allan Ferguson from injury.

“I’ve said he is the best goalkeeper in the league, and I have done so for a couple of seasons,” pointed out Rice. “He’s experienced and has done well since he came back in, with three clean sheets in the last four games.”

With club captain Kevin James and a summer recruit from Ayr United, Mark Campbell, performing ably in defence, the platform is there for Falkirk’s experienced midfielders to flourish. Rice, though, believes that defence starts from the front, and is glowing in his praise of strikers Darryl Duffy, who was freed by Rangers, and Andy Thomson.

“Darryl has been absolutely sensational since he came here,” he said. “Kids who get released by Celtic or Rangers tend to fall out of the game or believe they have gone to a level where they shouldn’t be. Darryl isn’t like that – his workrate is tremendous, he’s very quick, and I think we’ve got players who compliment that.

“He comes in here every day with a smile on his face. We’re just delighted we’ve got him here, and I’m sure he’d be the first to admit he’s loving it.”

An impressive 14 goals in his first 11 competitive games established that Duffy was determined to make a fresh start, and although he has only scored one in the last eight, the pressure has been taken off him by experienced fellow striker Andy Thomson, who has continued the steady striking which marked his career at clubs such as Gillingham and Queens Park Rangers.

“Andy is a proven goalscorer and his record speaks for itself,” confirmed Rice. He’s up there with all good goalscorers. When the rest of the team see two forwards like Andy and Darryl working so hard to close down the other side down it’s a good start.”

Rice, who experienced the worst side of football when he and Ian McCall worked at Morton under former chairman Hugh Scott, was assistant at Airdrie when that club won the Challenge Cup in 2001-02.

He accepts today’s task at McDiarmid Park will be difficult. “When we played them in Dingwall they played very, very well and we were fortunate to come away with a 1-0 victory,” he said.

“Alex Smith said that was the best Ross County had played since he’d managed there, but it’s results that count.”