42 Grounds: Ground 17: Almondvale

After last week’s bus trip in a different direction, I was back on the train heading south again today.

It meant a slightly earlier start than last week, but the train definitely has its advantages. Leg room, the ability to move around without risk of an unexpected brake causing problems and to wander to a slightly larger toilet than a bus would usually have.

I wrote at the start of October about the impending doom of cold weather and winter affecting the football watching experience and putting matches at risk of postponement.

Thankfully that never really came to pass, but with today’s game the first of November, I have that familiar sense of dread again.

It’s only a matter of time before three layers of clothing aren’t enough.

Today’s trip was to Livingston. Due to train works the route was slightly different to what I might have expected. Two changes sent me in the right direction.

It’s fair to say that Livi split opinions among Scottish football fans.

The club, formerly based in Edinburgh and named Meadowbank Thistle (Ferrari Thistle prior to that) relocated (and were renamed) in 1995.

As a result some fans feel that they are a ‘franchise’ club, having been upped and moved away from their original home in a way that fans of American sports are more accustomed to (see NFL, Rams for a recent example).

The years following the move brought a period of success unlike the club had ever experienced. Just six seasons after their arrival in Livingston, the club had been promoted to the top flight.

Remarkably, as if that rise wasn’t impressive enough, the club finished third in their first SPL season and qualified for the UEFA Cup in 2002. They would get through their first qualifying round (no mean feat for a Scottish club these days) and would only be knocked out after an 8-6 epic against Sturm Graz.

Jim Leishman, manager in that period, would become Director of Football and a Brazilian manager with an impressively varied CV would take over. Márcio Máximo became the first Brazilian manager in UK football and lasted a grand total of nine games.

His replacement, Davie Hay took the side on to a 2004 League Cup victory against Hibs.

Scottish football fans are well aware of Gretna’s ‘living the dream’ rise through the divisions, but Livingston’s rise surely matches it. Three promotions, European football and a Cup win all in the space of 10 years surely had the Livingston fans overjoyed.

However, all was not as it seemed. Administration followed and the club passed to new owners. A succession of managers also came and left, but ultimately the club was relegated in 2006.

Since then the club has rarely had a boring period. Demotion, promotions, administrative errors and the like have been common. Of all the words a rival could use to describe the club, ‘boring’ would be unlikely to feature too highly on that list.

Having been relegated from the Championship last season, Livi are one of two full time clubs in League One and at the start of play today, they were at the top of the league.

I arrived at Livingston North station and walked quite a considerable distance to the ground, without seeing much, if anything of the town. Almondvale felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. However I did notice the large shopping centres that people elsewhere in Scotland seem particularly fond of, and I assume it must be the train station that is remote, not the stadium.

One thing which Livingston seem very comfortable with (for better or worse, depending on your perspective) is thinking about how they can push themselves commercially.

From the sponsored names that Almondvale has held over the years (it’s currently named after an Italian restaurant chain), to the branding of a mobile phone company on display in the stand behind the goals (which one would presume isn’t part of any current marketing deal). As attendances have dwindled clubs have started to look at alternate ways to make money. Perhaps Livingston’s example provides a model for others to follow.

The stadium is quite something. There are three stands with the corner filled in and a main stand separate from the rest. It is huge. As is the case at many of the larger grounds in Scotland it was built for a different era. Now, save for the visit of teams with big away supports, only one stand is actually used.

The view from my seat.
The stand behind the goal and a filled in corner.
A view from one end of the main stand to the other.

The game was between the teams in first and eighth and on paper at least it looked like a straightforward home win.

The away side, East Fife did not look like a side hoping to avoid defeat. In fact, for much of the first half they were the better side, and few in the home end could have complained if the Fifers had taken the lead.

They didn’t though, and Livingston perhaps showed why they are currently leading the title race. Minutes before half time they took the lead. Some good work on the edge of the box led to a cut back and a tap in for the prolific Liam Buchanan.

The second half was more eventful than the first. A brilliant free kick made it 2-0 to Livingston.

However, East Fife hadn’t thrown in the towel yet. They pulled a goal back (which I missed while checking the scores elsewhere).

At 2-1 Livingston were still clear favourites, however the away side certainly weren’t out of it.

That changed when the East Fife goalkeeper was sent off for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity at the corner of his box. The resultant penalty was gently rolled along the ground, with Buchanan sending his replacement the wrong way and making it 3-1.

Things got worse when an off the ball incident (which nobody near me saw) led to East Fife being reduced to nine men.

After that the result was never in doubt, and the Lions were comfortable. They certainly look like a side that will challenge at the top for the rest of the season.

Promotion is probably an important part of the manager’s remit, and if they manage it the fans will be ready for the next stage in the unpredictable journey they’ve been on over the course of the last twenty years.

Livingston 3 East Fife 1

Attendance: 907

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