We spoke to Bairns fan favourite Tom Taiwo. The tough tackling Englishman discussed his time with the club, his career outside Falkirk, and his thoughts on The Bairns managers and a certain recent transfer…
The midfielder was a youth player at Chelsea as a youngster, something that gave him a great base as he went onto his career in professional football.
“It was really interesting to be honest playing and training with some excellent players. It was a great place to learn the game, not just with the best players but also some of the best coaches in the world at the time. One of the coaches that was there, Brendan Rodgers, everyone will know very well! That was the level of coaching we got, and I was fortunate to spend four years at such a big club.
“It wasn’t even necessarily the coaching or the way you played, you learned so much from people and the way they approached matches or training. You could take little bits from these top people all the time, whether it be Frank Lampard being the last one in from the changing ground or listening to the academy manager Neil Bath talk about how you should apply yourself and how you should be approaching your life outside of football.”
After a couple of loan spells, it was time for Tom to leave London for Carlisle and some regular first team action.
“It was exactly what I needed. A lot of kids play in the youth team for two seasons, play in the under 23s for a few seasons, and by the time their 22 they’ve still got very little league experience. Going out to Carlisle at such a young age and playing close to 100 games by the time I was 20/21 was massive for my development and essentially is what afforded me a career in the game long term.”
22-year-old Tom continued his way North as a youth compensation fee meant the only place he could move for free was to another country, in his case Scotland and Hibs. After only a few weeks in the capital he encountered the Edinburgh Derby for the first time, a game unlike any he’d experienced before.
“The rivalry with Hearts was something I hadn’t encountered before. With Carlisle we’d kind of had a rivalry with Hartlepool, but it wasn’t the same scale as the Edinburgh Derby. Being thrust into that after five or six weeks was interesting, but I really enjoyed it!”
After two seasons at Easter Road the Edinburgh club underwent massive changes that saw Tom on his way out of the club and into Peter Houston’s Falkirk.
“It was through Alan Maybury that I came to Falkirk. He recommended me to Houstie then we met up in a hotel to have a chat and it felt like the right place to go and get back playing after a tough final six months at Hibs.
“My first reaction after signing was that the club was definitely big enough to be a Premier League team, that was one of the things that appealed to me. The training facilities, the stadium, the ambition the manager had for the club, they were all big things. It was exciting to be a part of a team that really felt like it was going to go push on and go places.”
Tom’s first season with The Bairns saw the club reach their fifth Scottish Cup Final in 2015. Falkirk’s cup run went under the radar to begin with, but by the semi-final against Hibs everyone knew what was at stake.
A resolute performance earned the team a place in the final but despite matching Premiership side Inverness Caledonian Thistle it wasn’t to be for Tom or Falkirk.
“It’s probably not a popular thing to say but at the start it was just trying to get through the matches. The thing about football outside the top teams is if you play well you keep your shirt for the next week, which is what everyone is trying to do. As the rounds go on you start beating better teams and you’re looking for that chance to go on and play at Hampden and doing something historic.
“When we got to the semi-final against Hibs, we knew we’d given them really good games throughout the season, and we knew we had nothing to fear. I think if we were coming in against a team from the Premiership that were only a really good run of form we’d have been a bit more nervous, but with Hibs we knew we had more than enough to match them and going forward we could pose a threat towards them.
“The semi was a really good performance that sort of epitomised how we did things as a team. We stuck to the game plan and kept the discipline, then scored a really well worked goal. Again, against Inverness in the final we felt like we had nothing to fear and the performance showed we were more than a match for them, even though the result wasn’t ideal.”
The 2015/16 season involved a Championship that included both Rangers and Hibs, but Peter Houston’s Falkirk side held their own, beating both of those sides on multiple occasions while finishing second.
“We enjoyed playing against Rangers because they tried to pass the ball and didn’t have a negative shape, there was a real end to end feel to those games. It just showed that we weren’t far off that level, we just maybe missed that little bit more to come off the bench that they had.
“Whether it was the Hibs game we won 3-2 in the playoffs, the game Myles Hippolyte came on and produced his bit of magic, we had so many positive results and positive performances. I think we all took it a bit for granted at the time, fans, players and staff, we didn’t know how lucky we were!
“Bairdy used to chip in with a lot of goals but we never really had that 20-30 goal a season striker. It was nothing to do with the guys we had not being good finishers, they did so much in the build-up play that we often had to rely on goals from other places, whether that was Blair or Sibbs or even Luke now and again. It was a big thing knowing that no matter how a game was going we could get a goal from somewhere and it wasn’t reliant on one person.”
Despite heroic performances almost every week it wasn’t to be for The Bairns as they simply ran out of legs in the Play-Off Final second leg against Kilmarnock.
“I’ve said it before, it’s all about squad size when you get to the end of the season. We had four or five players playing pretty much all the matches in the middle which made it really hard to rotate. I think it was that season I suffered a really bad injury about six weeks before the end of the season and was having to play with injections and stuff just to get through games. The only time that happens is when there’s nobody else fit to play.
“We went into the Kilmarnock games with pretty much every one of us patched up in some way, it was just a couple of games too far.”
The next season again saw Falkirk challenging for a Premiership place, but this time it was Dundee United in the semi-finals that saw the end to the promotion dream.
“That season again we played some great football. It’s the fine margins that win the day in these situations; the goal that put Dundee United through had the boy jumping all over me at the back post with both hands on my shoulders, we were all screaming for the foul but it didn’t get given. It’s crazy that one incident can end your whole season after so much hard work!”
The 2017/18 season started poorly, and manager Peter Houston was sacked after failing to turn the initial slump around. Tom gave his thoughts on how the departure of the manager felt to the playing squad.
“When you have these big ending to the season and it doesn’t end in a positive it’s sometimes a bit of a hangover and it doesn’t quite click. It’s so difficult for the lads, because they’ve given everything. We were pretty broken physically and there were a lot of boys coming off forty odd games nonstop for the past two seasons.
“It was really tough with Houstie. None of us wanted him to go, we were all massively behind him. We had so many meetings about how to change it and make things better, everyone bought into it and the players took responsibility for not performing the way we should, but in the end it wasn’t enough and even though it wasn’t a shock we were sad to see him go.”
Peter Houston oversaw one of the best periods in recent years at Falkirk and was an extremely important manager for Tom and his teammates.
“Houstie is probably the type of manager that younger kids now, with the way they see the game, I’m not sure if they’d adapt to his methods as well as we did. When he gave you criticism you knew it was because he wanted you to be better. He told you in no uncertain terms when he was unhappy with you, but he also told you when he was pleased with you.
“We all had the same mentality and it was a really good group of lads. We all had that desire to do well, so when he had a pop at us, which he did quite often because he had very high standards, none of us would sulk or spit the dummy out.
“Every one of those players in that team developed in some way, he developed Will into a player that can hold his own in the English Championship, he got the best out of Sibbs and turned him into our pivotal player and he gave myself and Blair the freedom to go out and play a bit more, not trying to skin people but getting into the box for crosses or trying a shot, these are things that as a youngster I never thought I’d be able to do.
“His man management style was great, he helped me on a footballing level but also on a personal level as well often enough. I can’t speak highly enough about him, he doesn’t take any prisoners, but I really like it when you know where you stand with somebody.”
Several of Tom’s Falkirk teammates are now involved at the club and he gave his thoughts on managers Lee Miller and David McCracken as well as newest signing Blair Alston.
“It didn’t surprise me when I saw they’d got the job. You know what you’re getting with Cracks and Lee, they’ve got great football knowledge and they’re good people that will treat people in the right way. Once you get that you get a happy dressing room, and that leads to a happy team that plays well on a weekend and lifts the entire club.
“I don’t think you could’ve got a better signing than Blair to be honest. He’s a Premiership player, I played against him last season and he gave me the run-around, not that that’s hard but still! He’s one of those that can play a number of positions, but he’ll bring energy, goals and real technical quality. It just shows what pull Falkirk have to get a player of that ilk and I’m sure he will have turned down offers from teams in higher leagues to sign for Falkirk.”
Tom left The Bairns in the summer of 2018 for Premiership side Hamilton, a club with an atmosphere that drew many parallels to his time at Falkirk.
“It was really nice to play in the Premiership again. It’s a club that reminded me of Falkirk in the family atmosphere and the way the community was massively involved in the club. The way I was treated there was the same as when I was at Falkirk, people treated you right even when things weren’t going as well. From a footballing perspective it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped with me retiring at the end of the season, but I enjoyed my time at Hamilton.”
Tom retired at the end of the 2018/19 season, despite only being 29. He talked through his decision to hang up his boots at such a young age.
“My final game for Hamilton was at Celtic Park and I lasted about ten minutes. I tried a Cruyff turn in the middle of the park, I know you’ll be shaking your head but it was successful, but I felt a strange feeling in my groin and it turned out the muscle had come away from the bone.
“It was a bad injury but it wasn’t the type of injury that would stop someone coming back and playing again. When I came back I just didn’t feel the same player, even before in that season I felt like I struggled to put my mark on games and had lost a lot of speed, and I wasn’t quick anyway! I didn’t want to drop down the leagues while making things worse and decided to look forward to the next thing I was going to do.”
Tom’s involvement in football has continued since his retirement with a new role in scouting that has stopped him dwelling on the end of his career, as is a struggle for many professional players.
“I’m still involved in football through scouting and I’m extremely busy, so I don’t get the chance to think! The car’s my mobile office at the minute, it’s the only time I get the chance to talk to people. Football is everything when you’re a player so it can leave a massive gap, I’m fortunate I can still go out and watch or talk to people about football every day!
“As a player you’re reliant on a whole load of other people, whereas scouting you go to the games and make your reports by yourself. There’s a lot more onus on yourself as an individual so I’ve enjoyed that.”
Tom finished by reflecting on his experience as a Falkirk player and also by looking forward to the future of the club as we prepare to go into the new season.
“I came to Falkirk at a time when I was at a massive crossroads in my career and I could’ve gone two ways. People fall out the Premier League into the Championship, don’t really hit it off, then within two years are playing part time football. The club gave me the platform to go on to rediscover my best form.
“It gave me time to enjoy my football with real stability, it was probably gave me the best time of my career. The relationships I formed with people were fantastic. In that time, we had a great team, a great manager, and also a great link with the community and the fans.
“It’s been a really tough time for everyone but the numbers that still come out supporting the club after the last few years is testament to the community and the fans. I strongly believe there’s good times round the corner with the current coaching staff being Falkirk people, the only way is up!”