How Livingston and Gary Holt continue to defy the odds ahead of Rangers trip
Sky Sports News reporter Charles Paterson visits Livingston ahead of their trip to Rangers to learn more about the Premiership side that continues to defy the odds
By Charles Paterson
Last Updated: 14/02/20 10:33am
"We are more than what people assume..."
Gary Holt's eyes twinkle with satisfaction as he ponders Livingston's lofty status in the club's sparkling new media room. On the wall behind him is an impressive life-size motif of a roaring lion, next to a large club crest. The room is so compact, it is a struggle to arrange the chairs and camera to avoid Holt's head appearing to be inside the lion's jaws.
The lion and the crest were hand-painted by a local supporter and add a stylish, homely element to the stadium. There are similar frescoes in the main tunnel; for a club that not long ago seemed to have no identity and little purpose, these are hugely important features that the staff working at the Tony Macaroni Arena are rightly proud of.
Riding high in fifth place in the Scottish Premiership, Holt's team sit just four points behind Aberdeen in third. They boast the league's third-best home record, behind Celtic and Rangers, having won their last six matches at the stadium widely dubbed as "The Spaghetti-had". They are also the league's third top scorers - again bettered by the Old Firm - and have conceded only six league goals at home.
How Livingston returned to the top flight
Many would argue Livingston should not be in this position, while some might even suggest they should not exist. Two administrations, in 2004 and 2009, saw the club nearly disappear altogether; after the second, Livingston were demoted to the fourth tier of Scottish football.
Consecutive promotions under David Hopkin in 2017 and 2018 catapulted Livingston back into the top-flight, and Holt has continued that good work in his 18 months as head coach, despite critics lining up to attack his team's artificial pitch, style of play and lack of fanbase (last season, Livingston had the league's second-lowest average attendance).
"We've opened eyes to how well we can play football, but we don't go away from what we're good at as well. Stick to your principles, stick to your game plan, but within that you'll get chances to play and express yourself. We've got a lot of good players, and we've highlighted that this year.
"You'll get a chance to play, but you've got to earn the right, and we're not at a level yet where we can turn up and play football first. We must earn the right by winning the individual battles and the collective battles, and then we'll get chances to express ourselves in the right areas."
Holt's high standards
Wednesday's victory over St Mirren, and Holt's reflections on it, show why Livingston continue to improve. It was a sixth successive home win, but he was not satisfied with how it transpired.
"We went away from what got us the success initially. Game-management within the game; what's got us success? Don't go away from it. Aye, everyone wants to play nice football, but if you're getting success and chances and score goals from it, just keep doing it! It's up to the opponents to change. We went 2-0 up and then started trying to play it short, dink it into people, play off them...
"But then, talking about game-management and being 2-1 up, I think we would have drawn that game last season. It was nice to see that we didn't, and it's three points but it's still not acceptable. We've set standards as a group, and it's got to be better."
Rhetoric like this might give the impression of Holt being a harsh taskmaster, but you would struggle to meet a warmer, more engaging individual. As a player, he was a tireless midfielder who won 10 Scotland caps and remains a club legend at both Kilmarnock - after winning the Scottish Cup in 1997 - and Norwich City, where he reached the Premier League in 2004.
Those high standards are now being drilled into his players, who are reaping the rewards, especially at home. Livingston are the only Scottish team to have inflicted an away defeat on Celtic this season. Yet Holt wants to talk more about his team's form on their travels, where Livingston have actually scored more goals.
"There's not many teams whose away form is really good. It's fine margins. It's maybe a mentality thing across the board... at the end of the day, I say to the players, it's a goal at either end of the pitch, it's just the same as when we're here! Performance-wise we've been good away from home, we've just been unlucky at times. Individual mistakes have cost us, which we've eradicated at home.
"Results and winning games give you belief, but that home comfort... we don't change, we're the same every day. It's the fine lines of learning at this level for us. This year, we are a wee bit more mature, but we're still to find that away from home. We've lost some games and we've let teams score late on against us... it's still a learning curve but the performances have been really good."
Holt's barbed comments with Steven Gerrard
Livingston's next away match is at Ibrox on Saturday, against a Rangers team under immense pressure after falling 10 points behind Celtic. It could be a lively afternoon; Holt exchanged barbed comments with Steven Gerrard after September's League Cup quarter-final, a physical encounter which left Rangers midfielder Joe Aribo requiring 20 stitches in a head wound.
Gerrard called for his players to be "protected" by the referee ahead of Rangers' next visit two months later, prompting Holt to brand Gerrard's comments "naive". Though the dust has settled between the two managers, accusations of Livingston's players being "brutal" and "hammer-throwers" can easily be found online - not that Holt is bothered by crude perceptions.
"We might not get plaudits for what we do and how we go about it, but as long as we're happy about it, as long as our fans are happy with it, and as long as the players buy into it and believe in it, who cares what anybody else thinks?
"Our aim is to stay in the league. You look throughout history, and there is a cliché of second-season syndrome (Livingston finished ninth last season) that does exist, but there's a good mentality here to buck the trend and - I might get into trouble here - to stick two fingers up at people... to say that 'we're going to show you'.
"If we solely focus on how Rangers are hurting, it'll be a long afternoon. Let's go and showcase our talents. Don't be overawed by it, don't go into your shell - let's get out heads up, chests out and go and show what we can do.
"As long as the work ethic is there, as long as we look ourselves in the mirror and say 'I gave it my best'... it's the honest answer you get back. I know if I go and ask my sons if I'm the best manager in the world, they'll tell me 'aye' when we win. When we don't win, sometimes they'll tell me the truth!"
Targeting a place in Europe?
Holt won January's Scottish Premiership Manager of the Month award - "It wasn't me! It was a collective effort" - and Livingston are looking good for a top-six place. So what about the prospect of qualifying for Europe for the first time since 2002?
"Our aim is safety first and foremost, honestly. The long-term target was 45 points because we got 44 points last year. The sooner we get that, then we can start looking at different things. If we do it with eight games to go, brilliant, because then we can see how many more we can get.
"Having the carrot of teams above us is what we want to chase. Whether we catch them, who knows?"