At face value, it has possibly been Livingston's most successful season ever. The semi-finals of the Scottish Cup, winners of the League Cup and a decent-looking league finish are not enough to cheer up their fans, though, as they face administration, Neil White reports
His side had just reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup and won the CIS League Cup, their first major trophy, yet the man I know only as “Deasel” sounded depressed. It was understandable. Deasel supports Livingston.
Bitter-sweet really doesn’t do justice to the season the West Lothian club have enjoyed and endured. Their success in the two cup competitions and a league performance that will wind up somewhere around their pre-season expectation have been overshadowed by a sudden and unexpected plunge into administration.
They join Motherwell and Dundee in that somewhat unseaworthy boat, and any of the other clubs in the SPL, with the exception of Celtic and Partick, are a bank manager’s phone call away from joining them. Yet Livingston’s case is singular and extraordinary.
Meadowbank Thistle were going nowhere fast and in front of few when, nine years ago, chairman Bill Hunter moved them to the new town of Livingston. In their first season the club won the Third Division. Two years later, and close to financial ruin, Hunter stepped down, allowing Dominic Keane to take the helm.They won the Second Division in 1998-99, the First Division two seasons later and finished be- hind the Old Firm in the SPL in their first go at top-flight football to reach the UEFA Cup.
Two years on, Livvy are in administration, seven players have been sacked and they face a ten-point penalty next season, but Deasel will be happy if they get that far. All of Scottish football knows Deasel by his work. He was, until recently, the “mad drummer” who drove opposition supporters to distraction home and away during Livvy’s rise and rise. Now he is beating the drum for a supporters’ trust. The fans, he believes, are the only way out for Livingston, but the crisis may have come too soon for them. “Ten years down the line, I’m sure we could do it,” he said. “The problem is that most of the supporters are seven and eight years old. So we have to be successful or these kids won’t come back, but it looks like we’ll lose a lot of players in the summer. I’m not overly optimistic.”
Every other club in serious trouble have mobilised a dormant fan base when faced with liquidation. For Livingston, that does not exist. There were around 40,000 Hibs fans at the CIS Cup final in March, but only 9,000 in gold and black. Those kids could provide a long-term fan base, but no number of broken piggy banks will pay off the creditors at Almondvale.
Keane is seen by some as an ambitious man with terrible timing, taking the helm in the boom years of Sky money and banks who liked to say yes. Others criticise him as an egoist, unwilling to step out of the limelight even now. Despite his part in the club’s plight, Keane paraded the CIS Cup around Almondvale with the team after their Hampden triumph.
There is much unknown about what went wrong. According to the administrators, the majority of the debt is not related to football operations. Yet at every level then-manager Jim Leishman was able to outbid his peers for key players and, latterly, there were some costly failures. Argentina’s Sergio Berti was sent home on full pay before playing a game after spitting at a youth player during training, while Brazilian coach Marcio Maximo’s four-month reign this season was doomed from the start.
Yet Livingston could finish the season with a cup double after becoming the first non-Old Firm in six years to win a major trophy. In the Scottish Cup semis they face Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who joined the league with Livvy nine years ago and followed them to the First Division. The Highland side have not spent money on an SPL-friendly 10,000-seat stadium and there has been a slow evolution of playing staff since they locked horns with the nouveau riche of West Lothian in the lower leagues.
Their growth has been organic, while Livingston’s aspirations to join a group of clubs already on a self-destructive course drove them on. That they achieved their aim so remarkably may yet prove their downfall.
From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month