The Livingston Appreciation Society has grown in numbers throughout this season. But be warned: there are only five games left in which to marvel at what the team have done since it is guaranteed they won’t be seen in their current incarnation next season.
Of their now so familiar backline, skipper Craig Halkett has already signed a pre-contract deal with Hearts while Declan Gallagher is also out of contract and likely to move on – although he won’t confirm that yet. That leaves fellow centre-half Alan Lithgow and Liam Kelly, with the latter surely attracting admiring glances after another exceptional performance. This was the goalkeeper’s 17th clean sheet this season. Two of these have come against Celtic, with the latest at Celtic Park on Saturday.
This time last year Livingston were engaged in a battle simply to claim a play-off place in the Championship. Manager Gary Holt said he doubted the players’ achievements in the current campaign have sunk in yet – Livi are 21 points clear of second-bottom spot. He might be right. Next season is bound to be a lot tougher, particularly in view of the imminent departures, confirmed or otherwise.
Already linked with a move to Motherwell, Gallagher, right, would not be drawn on his own future. “I will wait until the end of the season to say what I’ll be doing,” he said.
The advice for Livi fans and devotees of defending in general therefore is enjoy this team while you can. They exhibited all their qualities in holding Celtic on Saturday. It proved particularly sweet for Gallagher, a former Celtic player who played only once at the ground in the hoops – in a 1-0 win for the Under 19s over Livingston coincidentally. Andy Halliday and Marc McNulty were playing for the visitors, with James Forrest, who was probably Celtic’s lone bright spot at the weekend, a team-mate of Gallagher’s.
Saturday topped that experience, however. “This has to be the sweetest memory,” said the defender. “Taking a clean sheet against Celtic here is unbelievable, playing against guys who are worth nine or ten million. You can’t ask any better than that.”
He agreed that the players might not appreciate just how much they have exceeded expectations this season. “The boys are more concerned about what their days off are next week and stuff like that!” he said. “But it is a massive achievement to come here and get a clean sheet – everyone should be proud of this. It is quite an achievement if that is the first time we have taken a point here. It is a testament to the boys and the coaching staff. I think we deserved a result like this.” They certainly did and it was no fluke. As well as clean sheets against Celtic, they have kept one against Rangers and two against Hearts – while also scoring five goals at the other end on one occasion against the Edinburgh side. Livi still have to endure sniffy remarks about style but Gallagher believes there’s a growing appreciation for what they do.
“I think a lot of people respect us now,” he said. “At the end of the day we are what we are and we are going to play to our strengths. There is no point in saying we are going to play silky soccer. That’s not to say we are a long-ball team but we are not going to play six or seven passes. It works for us so why should we change to suit anybody else? I think a lot of teams have changed and now try to nullify us.
He added: “We had that belief because we had done it before, although it is a bit different coming here and doing it in front of 60,000 fans.”
This is especially the case when the fans are as expectant as they were on Saturday. They hoped this would prove a stepping stone to an eighth successive title. While the point earned does take the side nearer their target, this was not a purposeful stride. Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final clash with Aberdeen now takes priority. Celtic might savour knowing they are back in a winner-takes-all scenario as opposed to this slow burning march towards the league title.
Kris Ajer will certainly relish the battle. The stitches put in following a collision against Rangers six days earlier were taken out on the morning of Saturday’s clash and Ajer remained as combative as ever throughout the 90 minutes before pronouncing himself ready for another physical contest against Aberdeen centre-forward Sam Cosgrove, who got back to scoring ways with a double against Dundee at the weekend.
“He’s done really well this season,” said the Norwegian. “We know Aberdeen are in great form right now and they will make it really difficult for us. Of course it will be a battle but we have to win the physical battle before you earn the right to play.”