2020/21 in Review – Livingston

The West Lothian club captured the hearts of the nation this season, as they secured a top six finish and reached the Scottish League Cup final under the guidance of the enigmatic David Martindale. Cameron Wanstall takes a look back at Livingston’s season gone by.

Livingston saw the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in a behind-closed-doors season, that saw them finish 6th in the Scottish Premiership.
(Photo Credit – SNS)

Season Overview

Lyndon Dykes’ summer exit to Queens Park Rangers echoed the departure of goalkeeper Liam Kelly to the same club in 2019. The familiar loss of a squad leader, who received his debut Scotland call-up within a week of leaving West Lothian for London, brought about the routine annual prediction of Livingston being relegated. Those who thought it had every right to. The absence of Dykes, as well as Motherwell-bound defender Ricki Lamie, surely worried Gary Holt after a second Premiership season defying the odds by finishing 5th place in the shortened 2019/20 season. 

Veteran midfielder Marvin Bartley was appointed captain with Alan Lithgow still out indefinitely and the club signed three journeyman forwards to replace their £2 million man up front. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Matej Poplatnik and Anthony Stokes all joined after spells in Thailand, India and Iran respectively. Stokes lasted less than a month. With relegation being predicted by many; Livi not winning any of their first five games failed to put fans’ minds at ease. 

Aberdeen, Hibernian and St Mirren swept the Lions aside but draws against Motherwell and Rangers put points on the board. Three wins in their next five were followed by another five-game winless streak. Gary Holt resigned after over two years in charge following the second sorry stretch of results, with the club only propped up by Hamilton and St. Mirren – thought the Paisley side were only one point behind with three games in hand.

David Martindale (initially alongside Tony Caig) took over as interim boss following Holt’s departure. His inspiring tale – from organised crime and prison to university graduate and head of football operations – earned the 46-year-old plenty of plaudits from colleagues, the media and supporters alike. The interim’s infectious personality won over any remaining doubters and his refreshing attitude, demeanour and interviews captivated Scottish football followers. But most importantly, performances on the pitch made the caretaker, and Livi, headline news. 

Six straight victories after his arrival, followed by two draws against Celtic before two wins and a draw to wrap up an astonishing 11-game unbeaten league run enraptured the nation. During this period – after public pressure and mass outcry – Martindale passed the fit and proper persons test to be officially appointed as the club’s new manager. The unforeseen run rocketed Livi up the table. Within two months, Martindale had kickstarted the team’s season and turned them into European contenders after months of relegation fears. 

The Lions’ staggering league form also transferred to the League Cup, as Livi reached their first major domestic cup final since winning the same competition in 2004. Unfortunately for Livi, the wheels had come off. Again. The most unexpected and unbeaten run had charmed the nation, but Martindale and his men went on to lose the League Cup final; get knocked out the Scottish Cup by Aberdeen and win only one (against bottom-placed Hamilton) of their final twelve league games. 

Martindale’s story captivated the nation and from beginning the campaign as relegation candidates, the side became European and domestic cup hopefuls. Records were broken and, with Martindale’s hiring, glass ceilings were shattered. Sadly, of course, Livi ran out of luck. Looking back, outwith that incredible unbeaten streak, the Lions won just three games from 27 and were perhaps more than fortunate to finish 6th in the league.

Next season, Livi will need to rebuild, or at least inject some more reliable quality into a side that probably should have been scrapping for relegation on the final day of the season rather than 5th in the league. Martindale must recapture the magic of last winter for the entire 2021/22 campaign if he wants to see Livi, once again, defy the odds. 

Player of the Season – Jon Guthrie

After excelling in his first season in West Lothian, Jon Guthrie formed a formidable partnership with Jack Fitzwater in the heart of the Livingston defence.
(Photo Credit – Willie Vass/Pool via Getty Images)

Nicky Devlin swept up Livingston’s own four separate Player of the Year awards so, of course, I’ve chosen the only real threat he had to any of the prizes. 

Jon Guthrie received the Supporters’ Player of the Year award in his debut season at Almondvale and carried over his fine performances into this campaign. The Englishman averaged 2.6 interceptions per game – the second-best in the division – and formed a strong partnership with Jack Fitzwater at the back that looks very promising should both remain at the club. 

The 28-year-old has also been a serious aerial threat at the other end of the pitch. Excluding Rangers’ penalty maestro James Tavernier, Guthrie is the only defender to score at least five goals in the league this season. His best offensive, and possibly defensive, showing came against Hibernian in January, when he grabbed a goal and assist in a 3-0 away win. 

The bad news for the Livi faithful is that the excellent Guthrie has asked to be transfer listed for ‘family reasons’ and will almost certainly not remain at the club. 

Underperformer of the Season – Anthony Stokes

The only solace Anthony Stokes will find from this bizarre short stay at Livingston is that he outlasted Ali Dia at Southampton, Sol Campbell at Notts County and Willo Flood at Bali United. 

Livi were “thrilled” to welcome the four-time Premiership champion to the Tony Macaroni Arena on August 22nd but found themselves bidding farewell just weeks later on September 15th. Martindale, still head of footballing operations at the time, said Stokes couldn’t adapt to training and playing intensely on the club’s artificial surfaces and accepted “we both knew that there was going to be a lot of work to be done to get Anthony into top shape to play Premiership football.”

Stokes was brought in as a replacement for outgoing forward Dykes and given the number 9 shirt to emphasise his importance in the team. However, with his near-immediate withdrawal from the squad, the Lions were forced to rely on Emmanuel-Thomas (five league goals), Poplatnik and Gavin Reilly (both zero league goals). 

Signing of the Season – Alan Forrest

A summer of quick rebuilding and rushed loan moves has failed to bring up any standout candidates for this award. Alan Forrest, brother of James, underwhelmingly takes this award.

There were flashes of brilliance from the former Ayr United winger, deployed largely on the left in his debut season in West Lothian, but he failed to consistently perform throughout the campaign. Often dropped to the bench and rarely playing a full 90 hasn’t helped Forrest either. But there have been good moments, of course… 

His best moment came in a game-changing 25 minute substitute appearance against Ross County in January when Martindalemania was in full flow. With the match tied at 1-1, Forrest came on to score a winning goal (coolly slotting the ball past Ross Laidlaw and Alex Iacovitti) before assisting Jack Hamilton to wrap up all three points in a 3-1 win. 

Goal of the Season – Jay Emmanuel-Thomas vs Hamilton

The JET admitted later after scoring that he was thinking of former Arsenal colleague Thierry Henry when he bamboozled his marker with a rapid flick and volley finish. 

After a couple of defeats in the league and still struggling to shake off the League Cup final defeat weeks earlier, Livi needed something special. 16 minutes into an ordinary encounter against lowly Hamilton, Nicky Devlin dribbled past multiple men before playing the ball into Emmanuel-Thomas – roughly 10 yards out with his back to goal – who flicked the ball up with his left foot before quickly firing the ball into the net before Aaron Martin had a chance to get in the way. 

“I was thinking of Henry’s goal against Manchester United when I scored it, more in the concept than anything,” Emmanuel-Thomas later admitted. The Arsenal connection certainly paid off and it helped Livi on their way to their only league win since February 2nd as their league season ended with a whimper. 

Honourable Mentions: 

  • Josh Mullin’s chip in a 3-0 razing of Hibernian in January, set to the hoarse but wonderful soundtrack of Martindale shouting “Go! GO! … YAAAAS!” 
  • Scott Robinson’s unique last minute, on-the-turn, lob/volley combo winner against Kilmarnock on Boxing Day.
  • Scott Pittman’s excellent drive toward goal before lashing a powerful strike from outside the area in a 2-1 win over Dundee United in December. 

Moment of the Season – Reaching the League Cup Final

Scott Robinson’s early goal was enough to send Livingston to their first major cup final since 2004, at a time when nothing could stop Martindale’s yellow machine.
(Photo Credit – Craig Williamson/SNS via Getty Images)

In a season that started disastrously and finished somehow more disastrously, there was a two-month period when Livingston felt invincible.

From late November to late January there were six league victories, back-to-back draws with Celtic and League Cup triumphs over Ayr United and Ross County, setting up a semi final clash against St. Mirren at Hampden Park. Despite still worrying over Martindale’s fit and proper persons test that was to be decided on the Tuesday after, Livi gave a passionate, unwavering performance that made their fit and proper manager proud. 

Scott Robinson scored an early header to put Livi in control and the Lions managed to hold out after a late bombardment from the Saints to book their spot in the final on February 28th. The achievement – the result extended their unbeaten run to 11 games and confirmed the club’s first major final appearance since League Cup glory in 2004 – seemed like just the beginning of the Martindale dynasty. 

Moment to Forget – Losing the League Cup Final

It was not to be. St. Johnstone soon travelled to Almondvale and ended Livingston’s record-breaking unbeaten run in a dress rehearsal for the final. 

The final was even more frustrating for the Lions. Shaun Rooney (as he did in the aforementioned league fixture) grabbed the winner for the Saints and Livi failed to regain any sense of control in the tie. There was bemusement at various tactical decisions employed by Martindale – infamously shunting Marvin Bartley to a left-wing role to counter Rooney was the most memorable. 

The Hampden defeat was a major blow that Livi failed to bounce back from. They were eliminated from the Scottish Cup on penalties by a woeful Aberdeen and picked up just four points from a possible 27 in the league as they underwhelmingly finished the campaign in 6th place. Underwhelming but atypically positive is perhaps the best way to describe Livingston’s rollercoaster, behind-closed-doors 2020/21 season.

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