I’ve been looking forward to this. Every team I have written about so far seems to have an underlying tone of negativity. Not here. Not at the Toni Macaroni Arena. Livingston won the 2016/17 League One title at a canter so had time and space to plan for this immediate return to Championship football. Spirits were already high coming in to this campaign and David Hopkin has now been in charge for two years so knows the club well and knows what to do to get the best out of his players. His managerial record is pretty fantastic and this season has seen a few admiring glances from sides who have parted company with their own managers. At the moment though he is fully focused on continuing Livingston’s very impressive season. Livi have been there or there abouts all campaign and they are still within touching distance of the top despite a couple of slight falters recently. The fans have been delighted with what they have seen this season and it has been great to see as an outsider. Of all the supporters in the division the Livi lot have the freedom to enjoy their season and what it might bring. Enjoyment is a luxury that most football fans don’t have! Since week seven Hopkin’s men have not been out of the playoff spots and you would think that if they replicate even some of their early form after January then they will comfortably end the season in the top four.
One slight concern for fans given the season they have had will be the potential for this team to be ripped apart. How often do we see teams doing well and then losing half a dozen players? Currently there are over 15 who are out of contract in the summer. That is a huge number and some are already attracting interest, like the team captain Craig Halkett. It is the price of success and unfortunately Livingston are a club that, in the long term, cannot compete financially with others in the division and in the Premiership. It means that as a club they can give a platform for young, talented players but they know that they might lose those them after a short while. Of course most Livingston supporters have been through pretty much anything and everything you can experience supporting a football club so none of this will come as too much of a shock to them.
January Wishlist – The real focus in January is to try and extend some of the contracts that are expiring and to be able to hold on to some of the players that have been attracting interest. They can do with adding a little bit of depth here and there with upfront being a priority (but it is for pretty much every team in the league). They have already missed out on a striker, Nathan Austin, due to another team offering a better financial package so they will have to be patient this month. The loan market has proved useful and could be another avenue to explore. Today they have moved to sign Jordan Thompson on loan from Rangers.
Player of the Season (so far) – Take your pick. Spoiled for choice here especially in the defensive areas given Livingston’s organisational strength. Midfielder Scott Pittman is a perfect foil in front of the defence in terms of breaking things up but my pick comes in the shape of captain fantastic Craig Halkett. The 22-year old leads out Livingston every week and looks every bit the part. Many reckon he could be the best defender in the league and it looks a certainty that he will move on sooner rather than later. He should go on to have a very good career.
Predicted Finish – 3rd. Momentum is massive and if Livi can hold on to the core of their team and not lose any players due to expiring contracts then they should be good enough to finish in the top four. They know what to expect in the second half of the season and they know that they can compete against every team in the division. Securing important results and edging out teams like Dunfermline and Morton will be vital but everything will come down to not losing key players.
Manager Grade – A. Can’t really say anything negative about Hopkin. Along with Stevie Aitken at Dumbarton and Jack Ross at St.Mirren you could make a case for him being the best manager in the division at the moment. He will have a decision to make in the near future because the chances are he will be offered an opportunity at a bigger team soon. He would probably benefit from another season at Livingston but if his squad gets decimated in the summer then he would be within his right to seek out a fresh challenge.
Overall Grade – A. Definitely the success story of the year so far. A team punching above its weight on the pitch they have managed to surprise everyone and may well get the reward at the end of it all by playing an important role in the title race if they can hold on to their players. Fans must be delighted that after such a turbulent few years they can finally enjoy their football on the pitch and it certainly seems that the board are doing a pretty good job at ensuring the future of Livingston (although the exact picture isn’t totally clear). The stadium ownership is still an uncertainty that long-term might need a solution and the board will also have a decision to make in the coming months; what next? Do they push and try to challenge again next season? The focus might be more about stability and ensuring that the club becomes a competitive Championship side with a clear plan and clear budget. One thing they do need to start doing, in my opinion, is offering players longer deals with more security and possibly sell-on clauses or future payments so that they do not lose players for nothing.