Livingston at ease among the elite

A former works team have proved they can compete with the best sides in Scotland
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The Independent Football

David Hay was too busy in the summer of 1974 to notice that the Scottish League had admitted a new club. Ferranti Thistle were about as far from Hay's world then as it was possible to get.

The only thing on Hay's mind then was his stunning strike against the crossbar in the World Cup finals against Brazil which, had it gone in, might have kept Scotland in the competition a little bit longer and delayed his move from Celtic to Chelsea that close season.

Some 27 years later, the pair are inseparable. The former works team of the electronics giant – which played on a municipal ground in Edinburgh – has been transformed into Livingston FC in a rags-to-riches fairytale which has elevated them up alongside Celtic and Rangers in Scottish football's pecking order.

In their first-ever season in the top flight, they sit proudly behind the Old Firm in the Scottish Premier League table with only one defeat in 11 games. Today, every seat in their smart 10,000-seater Almondvale Stadium will be filled for the visit of Rangers and the most intriguing aspect is that no one in the camp is overawed by the prospect.

''Why should we be?" asked Stuart Lovell, the captain, one of 10 new recruits brought in over the summer by Hay, the head coach, and manager Jim Leishman. "We drew 0-0 with Rangers at Ibrox in the second week of the season,'' Lovell pointed out, "and we passed the ball about, we were not hanging on for dear life.

"That was the day which proved to me we were not just going to be another team who came up, struggled and went down again. If you can play composed football in front of 50,000 there, you can do it anywhere."

Under Hay's shrewd care ("Davie is the brains and Jim is the motivation," explained coach John Robertson, the former Hearts striker), Livingston also held Celtic to a draw and beat Hibernian. Last week they whipped Kilmarnock, perennial Uefa Cup qualifiers, 5-1 away.

It barely seems possible that this is the same club which was playing in the Third Division six years ago, never mind the Ferranti Thistle who became Meadowbank Thistle before assuming their new identity after relocating to Livingston in 1995. Yet, Hay – who won the Scottish title as manager of Celtic in 1986 – understood that the first thing Livingston would have to do after winning the First Division championship last May was clear out the players who achieved the historic elevation.

''I have never shied away from the truth," he reflects, "but it was painful for the players I had to tell.

''We have brought in quite a few foreign players, who have experienced top class football in places such as Spain. We may be going into the unknown, but we are doing it with optimism."

Rubio, a defender bought from Portuguese club Farense, typifies Hay's theory. ''If you look at his CV, you see he played for Real Madrid against Valencia in a Spanish Cup semi-final in 1999. Now, obviously, if he had been good enough to make it at Real, we would not have him. But he has played at a reasonable professional level and that will stand us in good stead."

Massimiliano Caputo, 20, is another on whom Hay is pinning his hopes. Caputo is on a year's loan from Brescia where he was kept out of the team by Roberto Baggio.

Livingston are no longer small-time. Millionaire owners Dominic Keane, Willie Haughey and John McGuiness – a National Lottery winner – have put up more than £10m to help the club's progress to the promised land of the SPL.

A hotel and offices form part of Almondvale Stadium, while a youth academy is being built. Yet it was the pre-season tour of Holland which really opened Hay's eyes. "The training camp we used was the best I'd seen and had just been vacated by Rangers,'' he said. ''Valencia were following us. That showed everyone we really are taking care of everything.''