David Hopkin has achieved many things in a long career that included Scotland caps and a winning goal in an English Division One play-off final. He also now stands on the cusp of leading Livingston back to the Scottish top flight.
All this is impressive and admirable. However, it’s possible to wonder, with Livingston set to do battle with Partick Thistle for the right to play in the Premiership, if making a once unloved side so appealing to the town’s populace presently stands as his greatest feat.
The 47 year old gazed out of his office five minutes before kick-off in last Friday’s semi-final second leg against Dundee United and saw long queues of supporters still forming outside. The official attendance was later confirmed as 4,508.
“It’s fantastic,” Hopkin said yesterday. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw all the people coming in. I looked out of my office at 7:40pm – my wife couldn’t get into the car park, it was so busy!
“The crowd was pouring in. Overall we have changed the perspective of the club over the past couple of years. We’re trying to get everyone back.
“I was out in Edinburgh for a meal with my wife last week and Hearts and Hibs fans were saying they were coming to the game. I had friends from Greenock and Gourock coming up. So when they start telling you they’re coming to games you know the crowd will be good. I still didn’t expect it to be as big as it was on Friday but the potential has always been here.”
It just required someone to tap into it. Hopkin arrived as Mark Burchill’s assistant in 2015, initially on a part-time basis, before replacing him as manager. Livingston have barely looked back and stand on the brink of a second successive promotion.
But first they must find a way past Partick Thistle. Friday night’s 1-1 draw with Dundee United – Livingston won the tie 4-3 on aggregate – left Hopkin so emotionally exhausted he chose not to travel to watch Thistle, their most likely opponents, win 1-0 against Dundee at Dens Park the following afternoon. He had what he described as a “sofa day” instead.
“We were waiting on Saturday to find out who we were playing so we had people watch Partick and Ross County,” he explained. “I watched the game later on Saturday on BBC Alba.”
But Livi are raring to go now. What Hopkin learned from his own play-off experience as both a player – he scored a last-minute winner for Crystal Palace v Sheffield United in 1997’s Division One play-off final – and manager is that the semi-final is the toughest assignment. He reckons Livi can now “relax and enjoy” the coming games – the pressure, is on Patrick Thistle while the momentum is with Livingston.
“We budgeted for finishing eighth and that’s where we aimed to finish,” he reflected. “We went into the top four in October and I think everyone was waiting for us floundering. But we are very professional here – with prehab and triple sessions every day. We work hard. People thought we would crumble against Dundee United but the later the game went on the more I knew we would be strong.”
Skipper Craig Halkett, pictured above, was asked whether it would qualify as a football miracle if Livingston reached the top flight in a season when they were expected to struggle to stay up. “It’s as close to one as you can get,” he said.
“Four of us are still in the team from two-and-a-half years ago when we were relegated to League 1,” he added. “If you had asked us then where we would be now then nobody would have though that we would be two games away from the Scottish Premiership. It is close to a miracle.”
But the Miracle of the Tony Macaroni Arena – the club yesterday announced a new three-year sponsorship deal with the restaurant chain – is still some way from being played out.
Hopkin has asked for two last lung-busting performances from his players, a few of whom have indicated to him they wish to move on. He can’t resent them for this. His own future – he is due to be out of contract as well – is the subject of much speculation amid links with the vacant managerial posts at Carlisle and former club Morton.
“I know there are a few who want to move on in the summer,” he said. “I have asked them all to give me everything they have until the end of the season and if we manage to get through to be a Premiership club why not stay here?
“And if we don’t then I have told everyone they can go with my best wishes. They have had an opportunity to be coached and managed properly and if they go somewhere else it is because of money, and you can understand that.”
Hopkin won’t divulge the names of managers from both north and south of the Border who have sent good luck messages. But he’s had plenty. One read: “You’ve got a small budget and you’re at the top of the league – you know you can coach.” The trouble for Livingston is so does everyone else.