Why Livingston fans are the happiest in the Scottish Premiership - even more so than Celtic and Rangers

Gary Holt congratulates striker Lyndon Dykes. Picture: SNS
Gary Holt congratulates striker Lyndon Dykes. Picture: SNS
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It took just 134 seconds for the ball to hit the back of the net at the Global Energy Stadium.

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Marvin Bartley has been a big signing for Livi. Picture: SNS

Marvin Bartley has been a big signing for Livi. Picture: SNS

Keeghan Jacobs clipped in a free-kick and John Guthrie, standing in his own time zone just outside the six-yard box, nodded Livingston in front at Ross County.

As soon as John Beaton whistled to restart the match the West Lothian side got back to doing what they do better than any other team in the Scottish Premiership - hunting. The ball went from Billy Mckay to Iain Vigurs, zipped out to Sean Kelly and then knocked back to Liam Fontaine. In those six seconds Lyndon Dykes read the movement of the game and hared across half the width of the pitch to close down the Staggies centre-back, forcing a throw.

It was a moment which encapsulated Livingston.

Bears are said to have a sense of smell which is 2,100 better than that of a human. When players pull on a Livingston shirt it seems to heighten their hunting senses, more aware of an opponent who is unsure of himself, nervous, panicky.

Steven Lawless has been moved into a more creative role. Picture: SNS

Steven Lawless has been moved into a more creative role. Picture: SNS

Just past the half hour mark in Dingwall, with Livi now three ahead, the home side had won possession through captain Marcus Fraser. Deep in his own half he shifted the ball to Ross Stewart. Two players converged on the forward, one of which was Steven Lawless bursting a gut to work back.

Stewart hurriedly moved it onto strike partner Mckay dropping past the half-way line. Again, two Livi players converged. He played it back to Vigurs with one pass. Scott Pittman pressed. Vigurs passed it on immediately to midfield partner Joe Chalmers. He had an opponent to his right, and opponent up ahead, but it was the opponent behind him he didn't see coming he should have been worried about. Dykes accelerated back, ushering him away from the ball and winning possession.

"You stare at him and he just stares right back. And that's when the attack comes, not from the front but from the side, from the other two raptors you didn't even know were there. Because velociraptors are pack hunters, he uses coordinated attack patterns and he is out in force today."

Alan Grant's speech to a particularly vexatious youngster about the dangers of velociraptors in Jurassic Park can be translated to Livingston.

Livingston have reason to celebrate this season. Picture: SNS

Livingston have reason to celebrate this season. Picture: SNS

When an opponent has the ball they will likely see a player in yellow hurtling towards them, but what they are unlikely to realise is that that individual isn't the one they should be worried about. The first wave of pressure is usually the one to unease them, allowing the second and third wave a better chance to nick the ball.

They had blown away County with their pressing, their exhaustive running. Leading 4-1 in stoppage time, assistant coach David Martindale is cajoling his players to close down. The Staggies must have thought they were playing a game of 'whack-a-mole' but it was the moles who had the baton and were bopping them.

It is a triumph for the collective.

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David Martindale is a huge influence at the club. Picture: SNS

David Martindale is a huge influence at the club. Picture: SNS

Speaking afterwards, coach Gary Holt said: "(We) don’t go away from what we are good at... And that’s playing in their half, playing in their faces. Hunting, scrapping, fighting for first balls, second balls.”

That was evident in Dingwall. It was evident the week after in the 2-1 win over St Mirren. And two weeks prior in Perth. Last season. And the season before that.

This start to the campaign - the only team in Scotland unbeaten in all competitions - has been in the pipeline for months.

After their strong start last term, where they initially had this shock factor before it was accepted they were simply a hard team to play against, their foot came of the pedal somewhat in the second half of the season.

That was manager Gary Holt, who has recently passed his one year anniversary at the club having taken over from Kenny Miller, and influential assistant Martindale, tweaking, experimenting, preparing with an eye to this season.

They lost key men in Liam Kelly, Declan Gallagher and Craig Halkett, plus the enigmatic and unfathomable Dolly Menga. Yet, judging them so far, their work in the transfer market has been shrewd. Players with an abundance of Scottish or British football experience have seamlessly fit into the ethic preached by the management team.

Nicky Devlin and Guthrie have stepped into the backline, Marvin Bartley may be the one of the signings of the season, Robbie Crawford has moved up from Ayr United and Lyndon Dykes has confounded expectation in becoming the club's focal point in attack, joining from Queen of the South.

It is Bartley and Dykes who have really caught the eye in terms of new recruits.

If you looked around the Premiership last season for a midfielder who you could see as a perfect Livingston signing, it may easily have been the ex-Hibs star. He's added bulk and protection, mopping up in front of the backline. Teams, if they beat that press from the front players, run into the enforcer. Someone who his old club are crying out for at times. He is fourth in the league for defensive duel success rate - team-mate Guthrie is leading the way.

It is safe to say there were doubts about Dykes, who was the Robin to Stephen Dobbie's Batman at Palmerston last season. A willing runner, a trier but perhaps lacking the quality to make the step up. Instead he has thrived, the perfect focal point for Livingston. There is that willingness, that selflessness which is required in attack for Livingston, to run the channels, chase lost causes. He also sets out the team's stall and acts as an inspiration for those behind to follow, to defend from the front. Only two players have fouled more often in the Premiership.

He gives Livi variety. He challenges in the air with an impressive spring - the Australian leads the way in aerial duels - he holds the ball in and links play, he runs in behind, he drops deep and he's scoring goals with four to his name already.

The 23-year-old has aided the transition from a back three, which was popular at the club last season, to 4-2-3-1.

The switch has been epitomised by Steven Lawless. The ex-Partick Thistle ace was played as a wing-back at times last term, much to the bemusement of fans with a keen interest in Scottish football. It was a job he carried out competently but one everyone knew wasn't best suited to his qualities.

Now the 28-year-old is playing a key role in the final third, either as an inverted winger or a No.10.

Last season, there was a lot of energy and directness in the middle of the pitch - Pittman, Jacobs, Shaun Byrne, Steve Lawson, Scott Robinson - but sometimes they lacked a bit of craft. In Lawless they have that, someone to pick up in those half spaces, the corridor of uncertainty between defenders and midfielders.

He already has two league goals and two assists to his name. No one has attempted more than his 14 through balls and at a 57.14 per cent success rate. He scores highly in smart passes, key passes and deep completions. In layman's terms, he makes good, positive passes in the final third.

It may point to an evolution at Livingston. No longer the direct and aggressive team they were last season, or long ball, hammer throwing merchant some pundits, opposition fans or players had unfairly painted them - a perception which sticks.

That, however, may not quite be the case. Looking at the stats from this term and comparing them to last campaign, there are marginal differences.

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Their possession has increased by a little under two per cent but they are passing it less often. Long passes? Down ever so slightly per 90 minutes but up in terms of through balls. They are losing possession at the same rate. They are down on interceptions per 90 minutes, have a similar amount of defensive duels and conceding fewer shots. The number of crosses may have fallen but shots and touches in the box are up.

Nothing drastic.

What they have is an equilibrium. Players who understand their roles, individually and within the collective, beating St Mirren even though Holt was absent.

Nothing is more important than the collective.

Aymen Souda, one of three players brought in from abroad and one Holt said would bring a new dimension to the side in an attacking sense, had that drummed into him following a Betfred Cup win at Forfar Athletic. He was taken off for being "rubbish".

“Aymen was getting caught on the ball too often...It was good, physical, aggressive Scottish football and he needs to be aware of that and that’s what’s going to happen every single game.”

It was a message. He needed to switch on to how the team plays without the ball. Be a team player, not an individualist. Holt praised Robinson in the same interview. The antithesis of Souda. He can play anywhere for the team and be trusted.

Livi may not have the 'quality' of some other teams but they can be trusted to be competitive, to work, to do the simple things which succeed in Scotland.

And it is those strengths they will take to Ibrox on Saturday. It may well end up being the end of their unbeaten run, which sits at nine games, but they will do so by making it extremely difficult for Steven Gerrard's men.

Hunting, scrapping, fighting for first balls, second balls. And then taking it from there.

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