After a 12-year absence, top-flight football will be played in West Lothian once more. A fully merited triumph in the Premiership play-off final for Livingston completed back-to-back promotions under manager David Hopkin, who can now look forward to pitting his wits against Brendan Rodgers, Steven Gerrard et al next season.
A magnificent strike from Keaghan Jacobs just 35 seconds into the second half of the second leg ensured Livingston – who were relegated to the third tier just three seasons ago – finished the job they had started with a 2-1 victory at the Tony Macaroni Stadium last Thursday.
As is always the case on days like this, one team’s unbridled joy is another’s ultimate despair. This was a grim afternoon for Partick Thistle, top-six finishers last season but now paying the price for an insipid campaign. Their relegation brings an end to a five-year residency in the top flight and was the most wretched final day at the office imaginable for managing director Ian Maxwell, who will start his new job as chief executive of the Scottish FA today.
It is a setback which also raises questions over the future of Thistle manager Alan Archibald, pictured, as the Firhill club come to terms with the reality of playing Championship football next season.
Given the abject nature of Thistle’s display in the first leg, it came as no surprise that Archibald made four changes to his starting line-up. It was equally understandable that Hopkin should opt to stick with the same first eleven who had earned Livingston a precious and fully merited advantage to defend. These occasions are invariably tense, seldom lending themselves to any outbreaks of attractive or cohesive football. This one followed that script faithfully but still managed to be no less absorbing for the general lack of good quality on show.
Thistle had to get on the front foot and stay there, but they were again confronted by opponents whose admirable work ethic and intense pressing is difficult to negate.
While there was a definite improvement in Thistle’s own levels of intensity and desire, they struggled to translate it into any telling penetration when they approached Livingston’s defensive third of the pitch. Chris Erskine’s introduction did provide the hosts with greater imagination and attacking urgency and the midfielder was the first to threaten Neil Alexander’s goal, heading wide from a Steven Lawless cross.
With Thistle dominating possession, Kris Doolan then passed up what he would class as a more than presentable chance, miscuing badly in front of goal after being picked out by Andrew McCarthy’s cross.
Veteran Livi ‘keeper Alexander was in no hurry to keep the action flowing, his leisurely approach whenever in possession infuriating the home support.
But the onus was firmly on Thistle to take the initiative and present Alexander with some meaningful work to do. Instead, it was the visitors who came close with a rare foray into Thistle territory four minutes before the interval.
A long throw-in from Alan Lithgow caused panic in the home defence, the ball breaking to Jordan Thompson whose shot was blocked by Doolan. As Thistle struggled to get the ball clear, Shaun Byrne then had a clear sight of goal but saw his shot deflected wide off Adam Barton.
Two minutes into first-half stoppage time, Thistle finally forced Alexander into a save. It was a fine stop from the former Scotland international, diving low to his right to keep out Blair Spittal’s well-struck 20-yard shot, although the Thistle man might have been better advised to play in his unmarked team-mate Erskine.
The Glasgow club’s hopes of survival were ebbing away and they became even bleaker when Livingston stunned them with Jacobs’ outstanding strike less than a minute after the resumption.
Collecting a lay-off from Byrne, the Livi midfielder displayed great composure as he arrowed a shot from the edge of the penalty area beyond the grasping right hand of Tomas Cerny into the corner of the net.
Archibald’s response was the introduction of Conor Sammon for McCarthy but the on-loan Hearts striker was unable to make any telling impact as Livingston continued to defend doggedly and with a fair degree of comfort. There were a flurry of saves for Alexander to make in the closing stages but none of them were especially testing as clutched attempts from Lawless, Spittal and Christie Elliott in quick succession.
The opportunity for Thistle to mount a late salvage operation came in the 90th minute when Lithgow was penalised for handball as he blocked a shot from Sammon at close range. With four minutes of stoppage time still to play, it would have made for a nervous finale for Livingston had Sammon converted the spot-kick.
But he struck it with less than complete conviction and Alexander ensured this would be Livingston’s day.