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2019/20 Premiership preview - Livingston

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LAST SEASON: 9th, 44pts

NOTABLE INS: Marvin Bartley (Hibernian), Robbie Crawford (Ayr United), Nicky Devlin (Walsall), Cece Pepe (Rieti), Ibrahima Savane (Bezieres), Aymen Souda (Dunarea Calarasi), Matija Sarkic (Aston Villa, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Liam Kelly (Queens Park Rangers, £50k), Shaun Byrne (Dundee), Nicky Cadden (Greenock Morton), Callum Crane (Edinburgh City), Declan Gallagher (Motherwell), Craig Halkett (Heart of Midlothian), Matthew Knox (Brechin City), Henk Van Schaik (Greenock Morton), Cameron Blues (Greenock Morton, loan), Raffaele De Vita (Partick Thistle, loan), Jack Hamilton (Queen of the South, loan), Dolly Menga (Petro de Luanda, loan), Ciaron Brown (Cardiff City, end of loan), Ryan Hardie (Rangers, end of loan)

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Kelly, Lithgow, Halkett, Gallagher, Lawless, Jacobs, Byrne, Pittman, Lamie, Robinson, Hardie

How to write about Livingston's efforts last season without sounding patronizing? On reflection, all I can do is ask you to give me the benefit of the doubt.

Livi came ninth in the Premiership last season, which is some effort for a club that had been promoted via the playoffs, which was operating on (probably) the lowest budget in the league, and who changed manager twice between winning promotion and the first international break of the next campaign.

How did they do it? When Gary Holt replaced Kenny Miller as manager, he basically undid all the changes Miller tried to make and went back to the formula that worked so well for David Hopkin. No-one was more direct than they were, that isn;t the same thing as aimless punting up the park. Long balls were sent into space for busy forwards to chase, and the midfield, which appeared literally tireless, hoovered up second balls. Free-kicks, corners, long throws - all of them were dangerous as hell. And they were superbly organized defensively.

Okay, so it wasn't exactly hipster football. But nor was it dull. At Almondvale they did over Hearts 5-0 and Dundee 4-0, and beat Rangers too. This was not a team riding their luck. They were safe by Christmas.

They did, however, win just three of their final twenty league matches. Was this a case of easing back once the pressure was off, or regression to the mean? We'll find out soon enough. And if this season was already at risk of becoming the 'difficult second album' regardless, it'll be even tougher without some of the talented tunesmiths that took them to their previous heights.

That solid backline? No more. Their two most talented central defenders, Craig Halkett and Declan Gallagher, have moved on to bigger things (or at least bigger wages) at Hearts and Motherwell respectively. Not only was Halkett a Team of the Year candidate for many (including this writer) but his set-piece threat and ability to ping one in from miles out meant he was, remarkably, Livingston's joint top scorer in the league with seven goals. 

Now Alan Lithgow is the only one left of the back three which took the Lions up two divisions in consecutive years. And, down two excellent central-defenders, it makes sense that Holt has moved to a flat back four for the new season. Ricki Lamie and new signing Nicky Devlin will be the full-backs, while at the moment Lithgow's most likely companion in the middle is Cece Pepe, a Frenchman who last played in Italy's Serie C.

Also away is Liam Kelly, the outstanding young goalkeeper who cracked the Scotland squad last year. It turns out that in order to attract him to sign last summer the club had to agree to a clause that allowed him to leave for a derisory fee after a year. Queens Park Rangers paid it. So Aston Villa loanee Matija Sarkic takes up the gloves.

The midfield picture isn't particularly brighter. One of its perpetual motion engines, Shaun Byrne, has chosen to join Dundee in the Championship. Byrne, Halkett, Gallagher and Kelly were four of Livingston's best five players last season. Thankfully the fifth, Scott Pittman, is still here. Pittman literally covers every blade of grass and without him they really would be in a fix. Keaghan Jacobs will start in a deeper role, alongside veteran Marvin Bartley. Bartley loves a tackle, which means he is a great fit for this team. However he is 33 and so will sit in front of the defence rather than push up to break up play. Holt also brought in Ayr United's Robbie Crawford, who is a bit more technically gifted but runs less than Byrne and tackles less than Bartley.

Oh, and the forward line isn't in great shape either. Ryan Hardie, the other joint top scorer from last season, isn't coming back from Rangers for a third loan spell. Dolly Menga, who tailed off after a bright start, has returned to Angola on loan to boost his international prospects. And Lee Miller is 36 and surely nothing more than a 'bring on for the last five minutes if we're a goal down' option. 

In came Lyndon Dykes (technically signed in January but loaned back to Queen of the South for the rest of last season) and Tunisian Aymen Souda. Dykes works as hard as heck (again, a good fit) and loves a shoulder barge. He does not, however, have a great scoring record even at a lower level. In contrast Souda has looked like a goal threat in the League Cup games when coming in from the flank. He could also play more centrally as a number ten, but Holt is more likely to choose between the flair of Craig Sibbald and the more workmanlike Scott Robinson for that role; the latter is better at the defensive work.

The change of formation allows Steven Lawless to concentrate on being a winger again after he did a passable impersonation of a wing-back last season. It also means that there is potentially a role for Chris Erskine, who looked a bit out of place after signing in January.

I am aware that I'm painting a picture of doom and gloom here. Nevertheless it would be hard for any club to bounce back from losing so many talented players. And their up-and-at-em style no longer surprises anyone, and their form in 2019 so far suggests that they might have been found out to some extent. Livingston's second season back in the top flight may go the way everyone wrongly expected their first to go - not very well at all. On the other hand, no-one thrives quite as much on being written of as Livingston do... 

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Gary Maley, Matija Sarkic, Ross Stewart
Defenders: Nicky Devlin, Ricki Lamie, Alan Lithgow, Jack McMillan, Hakeem Odoffin, Cece Pepe, Ibrahima Savane
Midfielders: Marvin Bartley, Robbie Crawford, Chris Erskine, Keaghan Jacobs, Steven Lawless, Steve Lawson, Scott Pittman, Scott Robinson, Craig Sibbald, Gregg Wylde
Forwards: Lyndon Dykes, Craig Henderson, Lee Miller, Aymen Souda, Scott Tiffoney


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

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