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Glory for 'pub team' Livi

These are heady days for the undisputed Johnny-come-latelies of Scottish football. Livingston's unexpected yet well-merited 2-0 triumph over Hibernian in last week's CIS Insurance Cup Final provided welcome respite north of the border from the yawning boredom of a one-horse championship race.

'Livingston you say? They must be a pub team or something, are they?' These are in fact the words of a friend, previously well versed in football, who left Scotland in the late eighties. So for him and others, let me get the history lesson out of the way.

In 1949, an Edinburgh electronics company works team was born. Ferranti Thistle played at City Park in the East of Scotland League and would occasionally make appearances on Grandstand's 'teleprinter' in the early rounds of the Scottish Cup during the Frank Bough era on BBC1.

By 1974 Ferranti were admitted to the Scottish Second Division and promptly moved house to the capital's vacant Meadowbank Stadium. Toiling for more than twenty years under the name of Meadowbank Thistle, victories were hard to come by and support even harder in the soulless Commonwealth arena. Crowds of under two hundred were not uncommon.

Few of us imagined the decision in 1995 to relocate fifteen miles west along the M8 motorway to Livingston would so radically improve the fortunes of a struggling club. Yet within six seasons, the Lions had emerged from the ashes of Meadowbank, roaring all the way from the depths of the Third Division to a place in the top flight. Off the pitch, former Celtic directors Dominic Keane and Willie Haughey together with national lottery millionaire John McGuiness were overseeing this bewildering transformation in status.

Since 2001, Livingston have remained in the Premier League, even enjoying an unlikely stab at European competition last season before being eliminated from the UEFA Cup by the Austrian side Sturm Graz 8-6 on aggregate. Their domestic rivals looked on askance as Livi constructed a cosmopolitan squad, often paying over the odds to get their man, while making sure their tidy 10,000 capacity stadium complied with stringent SPL specifications. Nevertheless, attendance returns were coming in at less than 7,000 per game. Where was the cash injection coming from that enabled the Lions to live like kings?

Not until the start of this current campaign did the potholes surface. Last summer, the popular Jim Leishman was replaced by Marcio Maximo, the first Brazilian-born manager of a British club. After fifteen testy weeks in West Lothian, Maximo returned home to South America. An eccentric figure with little feel for the Scottish game and its own peculiarities, he had seemed an odd choice to begin with.

Almost by default, Livingston found the ideal successor in the meticulous David Hay, who had previously served the club as both coach and general manager. Hay, a quiet talker but deeply knowledgeable football man, has been underappreciated in Scottish football for years and appeared on the verge of being sidelined at Almondvale. His calm assurance was in fact exactly what was required when a bombshell hit at the beginning of February.

On the eve of a crucial CIS Cup semi-final against Dundee, Livingston were rushed into football's version of the operating theatre, known as 'administration'. Based partly on a crippling overdraft of £3.5million, the club's main creditor, Halifax Bank of Scotland had run out of patience.

Chairman Keane, for years Livi's ubiquitous public face, departed and within days, seven players, including Spanish midfield maestro Francisco Quino received their walking papers. Seven others, amongst them captain Stuart Lovell, reluctantly accepted offers of reduced terms from the administrators.

Amongst older football followers, established loyalty to Hibs and Hearts runs deep in this part of urban Scotland. It's the younger fans Livingston have tried to target.

Despite an atmosphere of gloom and doom surrounding the troubled club, Livingston dug deep to beat Dundee, another Scottish club in administration, thanks to a late penalty from Derek Lilley. This went a long way towards helping the players draw a line between the football side of the business and the off the field chaos that threatened to envelop all of them.

So, to the big day and few pundits expected Livingston to land their first major trophy against a youthful Hibs team, which had overcome Rangers on penalties in the other semi-final. Livi supporters were thin on the ground with only 7,000 making the one-hour journey to Hampden, while their green and white bedecked counterparts outnumbered them by four to one.

The early signs were less than encouraging. Hibernian dominated the early exchanges and perhaps unaccustomed to the big occasion, Livingston looked decidedly jittery at the back. More worryingly, star Spaniard David Fernandez, on loan from Celtic, was having a bad day. Mightily relieved to get his team in at 0-0 after 45 minutes, David Hay went about the task of instilling belief in his charges.

Whatever wisdom Hay imparted had the desired effect. Early in the second half, Burton O'Brien's cross was angled home by Lilley and Livi were on their way.

Visibly reeling from that shock, Hibs capitulated again, allowing Fernandez to curl a glorious pass to the onrushing Jamie McAllister. Displaying poise and maturity, the full back cracked a low shot past the helpless Daniel Andersson. Livingston never looked back and afterwards, Hay a former Celtic player and manager and Scotland stalwart in the 1974 World Cup said this day of glory with a new team from a new town, tops any of his previous football achievements.

That Livingston's whole-hearted Hampden display was followed by an equally gutsy 1-0 win against Aberdeen in the Tennent's Scottish Cup quarter-final replay ensures a swift return to the national stadium for the semi-final meeting with Celtic. Admittedly, Hay's team were running on empty for much of the game but O'Brien's incredible long range strike and the sheer tenacity of a five-man defence organised by the indefatigable Marvin Andrews, combined to secure Livi's first ever home victory against the Dons.

Brave is the man who would back the West Lothian side against the Scottish champions on 11 April but courage has in been in plentiful supply at Almondvale this season considering the unfavourable odds the Lions have had to overcome.

Critics have attacked Livingston for failing to develop their own young players, relying instead on journeymen from overseas. A rocky road might yet be ahead of them, as beginning on 31 May, any SPL club still in administration will be docked ten points and prevented from signing new players.

An infusion of Cup cash will certainly boost the coffers. £500,000 pounds is likely to come Livi's way once CIS Insurance Cup prize money, turnstile takings and television revenues are taken into account. Another potential windfall awaits based on their qualification for Tennent's Scottish Cup semi-final. Alas, this is unlikely to be sufficient to see off the administrators in the short term.

Three years ago, on a visit to this product of post-war town planning for ESPN, the search for a Livingston supporter willing to discuss the Lions' prospects in the top flight proved elusive. Amongst older football followers, established loyalty to Hibs and Hearts runs deep in this part of urban Scotland. It's the younger fans Livingston have tried to target.

Let's hope a return trip to West Lothian in future years will produce a frenzied queue of Livi supporters, anxious to recall that never to be forgotten day at Hampden.


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