Franchise or Brave New World? It’s now sixteen years since Livingston moved from the Meadowbank Stadium, changed their name and their town. Alasdair Sim writes on a rollercoaster ride.
The ‘death knell’ for Livingston Football Club was due to be heralded in 2009 shortly after the team were demoted to the Siberia-esque echelons of the Scottish Football League. A double relegation to the Third Division looked set to signal the end for the central belt team and perhaps pen the last chapter in what is one of the most fascinating journeys in Scottish Football. The beaten, bruised and bloody body of Livingston FC was gasping for breath on a life support machine as the SFL decided how best to deal with the club after they narrowly avoided liquidation in July 2009 and were only brought back from the brink by Gordon McDougall and the former Chairman of Dumbarton, Neil Rankine; however the damaged had appeared to have done and the club looked certain to be doomed to a future decaying in Scottish football’s lower leagues.
Uprooting a football team from its home and plonking it up the road is never going to go down well with any set of supporters and you only have to look south over the crumbling remains Hadrian’s Wall to see how a supporters’ backlash can manifest itself in the most extreme of ways – read: Pete Winkelman, MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon. However, when Bill Hunter took over the Edinburgh based Meadowbank Thistle 1994 he decided that there was little point in trying to compete with the two big teams from the capital– Hearts and Hibs – and subsequently deracinated the club and placed it 15 miles west across the central belt to the town of Livingston. The result was not the same as what occurred in south-west London; for sure, many were disappointed, angered even, at the decision – after all, a club often forms the hub of a community, a place for young and old alike to take some pride in where they live and the team they support – but there was no consistent long term opposition to the move. And thus, Livingston FC was born.
So in 1995, the newly-named, newly-located and newly-branded club found itself in the same position that it would 14 years later – the Scottish Football League Division Three. This was just to be the start of the journey, however. Within a season they were promoted and within six years they found themselves at the zenith of Scottish Football, the SPL. Derided, looked down upon and mocked, the Scottish Premier League has its fair share of critics however it is still the league that Scottish clubs aspire to and Ibrox, Celtic Park and Pittodrie are a far cry from playing East Stirling at Firs Park with an average attendance of about 250. Surely this would be their greatest achievement in the short term? Six years on from being established, the club had risen through the rough and tumble ranks of Scottish Football and were set for their season of fame before being cast aside and thrown back from whence they came, no?
Led by the highly likable Jim Leishman, Livingston defied the odds and ended up finishing 3rd in the 2001-2 season. This was the era when Henrik Larsson was terrifying defenders, Martin O’Neil was jumping around the touchline, Tore Andre Flo was trying to justify his ridiculous price tag and a young James McFadden was making a valuable contribution to Motherwell’s fight to avoid relegation (even if they did finish almost twenty points clear of poor St. Johnstone). Indeed, Leishman and Livingston showed that they weren’t going to be pushovers to the Old Firm as they held Rangers to a goalless draw at Ibrox on the second week of the season, did the same to Celtic at home a few weeks later before beating Alex McLeish’s dishevelled team at Almondvale later on in the year. Following the script this was not.
Their exploits in the SPL that season meant that for the first time Livingston would play in Europe. Perhaps playing in the Qualifying Round of the old UEFA Cup against FC Vaduz of Liechtenstein does not have the same romance as lining up against Juventus at Old Trafford in the Champions League Final, but it was European football nonetheless and they managed to weave their way into the First Round before a sterner opposition in Sturm Graz was found and they lost 8-3 on aggregate. The doomsayers of the club again predicted that that was it for Livingston; they had achieved all they could, indeed they had overachieved, and now it was time to go the way of other flash in the pan teams and resign themselves to an existence of the vicious relegation and promotion cycle while holding on to the memories of a few fantastic seasons.
Again, however, the team defied all that was put in front of them; they finished 9th in 2002-3 before clinching their first piece of cup silverware (either as Livingston, Meadowbank Thistle or Ferranti Thistle as they were known as between 1948 and 1973) the following year in 2004. A convincing win over Queens Park was followed by heroic efforts over Dundee United, Aberdeen and Dundee before they soundly beat Hibs 2-0 in the final at Hampden Park through journeyman Derek Lilley and a sublime finish by Jamie McAllister. It was at this time, though, that the clubs’ financial problems were beginning to mount. Five weeks before their greatest moment at Hampden, Livingston went into administration with debts amounting to nearly £4m and the die was being cast for a period of turmoil, disorder and an uncertain future.
Managers came and went; from their promotion in 2001 to their relegation from the SPL in 2006 (when they recorded the worst ever season performance in the leagues history with only four wins all season) the club hired and sacked 8 managers in that time. A few seasons were spent in mediocrity, languishing in the first division without ever threatening to win promotion before their finances came back to haunt them again. Over the course of a few weeks the club went into administration, were almost liquidated and were finally brought back from the dead by McDougall and Rankine only to be penalised by the SFL and sent tumbling down into the depths of the Scottish Third Division.
Since then, however, the club has had a renaissance of sorts. The turbulent days of owner Angelo Massone are long gone and Gary Bollan (formerly a no-nonsense full back who played with the team in their SPL and UEFA Cup exploits) is now sitting in the Almondvale dugout. Despite a double demotion in 2009 and a boycott of their first fixture after being sent down two divisions, Bollan has rejuvenated the club. Less than a year later Livingston were promoted to the Second Division and, more recently, they have just secured promotion again meaning that they are now just one league away from where they achieved their greatest success.
Both the club and the fans have been on a topsy-turvy ride over the last 16 years. From relocation to the SPL, onwards into Europe and lifting a trophy a Hampden, to administration and demotion; the club has also went through more managers than perhaps they care to remember while they fight just to stay afloat. McDougall, Rankine and Bollan have all brought an air of stability about the club and if they continue their rapid redevelopment then it is not impossible to assume that they will be back in SPL at some point in the very near future even though history suggests that things won’t be as straightforward as they should be; as Jim Leishman himself said: “When there is a glimmer of hope you have to pursue the challenge.”
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