Unlike most clubs that win promotion to the Scottish Premiership, St Mirren have been front…
After a twelve year absence, Livingston will once again compete in Scotland’s top division this season. Few would have envisaged the Lions gaining a second consecutive promotion at the beginning of the 2017/18 campaign but the now-departed David Hopkin completed the feat, managing to squeeze every last drop out of the players he had to work with.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Livingston’s over-achievement over the last two seasons is unparalleled throughout Scotland over the same period. After running away with the League One title in 2016/17, last season Livi stormed the Championship and ultimately finished in second place with 62 points – still some way behind St Mirren in first, but with enough points to qualify for the playoffs. Hopkin’s side faced off against Partick Thistle, proving that they had what it takes to compete at Premiership level after winning both legs of the tie.
Now, as the club prepare for a long-awaited return to the summit of Scottish football, the man that got them there has moved on. Hopkin left the club shortly after promotion was gained and was replaced with Kenny Miller, who has taken on a player-manager role. We’ve taken a look to see how well Livi are prepared for the upcoming season, and how far this remarkable side can go in the Premiership.
Livingston find themselves in the unusual position where any major criticism of the previous season feels pretty unjustified. After all, this is a team that was aiming for survival and ended up in second before deservedly overcoming Premiership opposition in the playoffs. The entire team outdid themselves under Hopkin’s superb management, but that isn’t to say that they were perfect.
Not one player at Livingston hit double figures in the Championship last season – something that, given their final position, is unusual. This isn’t necessarily problematic, suggesting that Livi, as a team, generally prefer to spread the goals around. This can make life difficult for opposition coaches, as there are no specific attacking threats that need to be marked out of a game. But from Livingston’s perspective, it means there is no focal point in attack.
Ryan Hardie was Livi’s top scorer in the league last season, contributing eight of their 56 goals scored. This is a decent return for a young striker, but it isn’t enough that Hardie can be relied on as Livingston’s principal goal threat this season. Under Hopkin, the West Lothian club played aggressive, physical football and often eked games out when ahead by a single goal. The defences in the Premiership are not quite as accommodating as those in the second tier – goals could be hard to come by for Kenny Miller’s team this season. Someone will need to step up to the plate and become the reliable goalscorer that Livingston desperately need.
The data backs this up. In the Championship last season, no one had a higher total expected goals (xG) than Livingston. This tells us that Hopkin’s team were able to create plenty of opportunities but sometimes fell short when it came to converting them. Having a composed, consistent striker could be the difference between survival and relegation this season.
The big one, of course, is David Hopkin himself. Despite becoming the first club since Gretna to climb from the third tier to the Premiership in just two seasons, Hopkin walked away from the club at the end of May for personal reasons. It’s difficult for any manager to take the reins following his predecessor in the best of times, but Kenny Miller has a huge job on his hands. Joining a club after a period of such unexpected success is unusual, as is replacing him with an unproven coach. It’s been a gamble for Livingston but one that, so far at least, has paid off.
In addition to their now former coach, there is one player whose absence is sure to be keenly felt this season for Livingston. Neil Alexander only joined the club at the beginning of last year but went on to start all but two of Livi’s Championship fixtures last season. The veteran keeper was an important player for Hopkin but decided to join Dundee United, who he had helped to knock out of the playoffs just weeks beforehand. Liam Kelly was the first choice goalie during Livingston’s League One title win and will be expected to feature prominently this season for the Lions, competing with new signing Ross Stewart for the number one jersey.
It’s been an interesting summer of recruitment at the Toni Macaroni Arena. Kenny Miller was appointed as player-manager and has already got on the scoresheet a couple of times in the group stages of the League Cup. He might not be the player he once was, but the 38-year-old has shown that he can still chip in with the odd goal and that he still has plenty to offer on the pitch. Livingston’s decision to re-sign Ryan Hardie on loan looks like a good piece of business too – as Livi’s top scorer in the league last season, Hardie has already demonstrated his worth to the team.
As is the case with any newly promoted club, Livingston’s transfer policy has been based on bringing in players with Premiership experience. Steven Lawless has joined from Partick Thistle – a tricky winger with seemingly endless reserves of stamina – and should provide a strong creative outlet whenever he plays. Steven Saunders, formerly of Motherwell, has been signed to provide defensive cover while in midfield, the addition of Craig Sibbald from Falkirk looks an astute one.
No fewer than ten new players have signed for the West Lothian club this summer and with around a month to go until the transfer window closes, don’t be surprised to see that figure rise. Livingston, like many promoted clubs before them, have taken something of a scattergun approach to the transfer window in the hope that some players will prove to be successful signings even if others don’t really work out.
In a word: survival. Livingston put in a strong showing in the group stages of the League Cup and will host Motherwell in the last 16 but a prolonged run in either of the cups is unlikely, yet far from unimaginable. As my colleague Niall Murray recently pointed out, Livi’s superior fitness last season was one of the cornerstones of their remarkable success as they often scored crucial, late goals. So long as Miller has kept up the intensity at the training ground, Livi should be able to work harder than their opponents, giving them every opportunity of walking away with a win following a one-off cup game. Tired legs can often be the decisive factor in such contests and Livingston have a clear advantage here.
Miller’s focus, however, must be fixed squarely on ensuring that the Lions retain their Premiership status by avoiding relegation. Performances against St Mirren, Dundee and Hamilton – the trio of clubs who will likely be near the bottom end of the Premiership this season – will likely be crucial as they bid to avoid the drop. Relegation would be a huge blow to the club and it could take another decade until they’re back in the Premiership. It’s taken Livingston a long time to get here and now that they’re back at Scottish football’s top table, Miller will be keen to make sure that they give it their best shot.
Survival certainly seems doable. Hamilton stayed up last season despite only winning nine of their 38 league fixtures – hardly a daunting target for Livi to match. In order to survive, Livingston will likely have to finish ahead of either a Dundee side with problems up front, a Hamilton team that seem to be perennial relegation candidates or a St Mirren team that lost both their manager and their best player over the summer. All are fallible, all are beatable and it isn’t too difficult to envisage Miller’s team outperforming one of them over the course of a season. One thing’s for certain, though: this Livingston side, who regularly defy expectations, cannot be written off.