THE man known as Big Bad John insists he has only been a small, small part of the Livingston success story.

John Hartson has been working away in the background, far from the limelight, one or two days a week in West Lothian ever since the start of the season as a strikers’ coach under the auspices of manager David Hopkin. 

Back then, the larger-than-life Welshman’s main task was assumed to be arming this Almondvale squad, freshly-crowned League 1 champions, for a season-of battling against the drop. So how exactly do they stand just 180 minutes of what is sure to be a fraught Premiership play-off against Partick Thistle away from a remarkable promotion to the Scottish top flight? 

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Everyone knows the dice are loaded against Championship teams as they bid to gatecrash the Premiership via the play-offs. Most know there is likely only to be a lukewarm welcome should Livingston return to the Scottish top flight for the first time since 2006, after a period which brought administration and demotion to the third division for a breach of insolvency rules.

Not only is there snobbishness about home crowds which don’t always stretch into four figures, aspersions have been cast about a robust style of play which leans heavily on three no-nonsense defenders – Declan Gallagher, Craig Halkett and Alan Lithgow – who put the fear of God into opposition strikers. 

Beasts from the East you might say, but Hartson laughs off criticism of the club’s style of play. A veteran of Wimbledon, Hartson knows there is more than one way to win a match and insists it isn’t too much different to the effective brand of football once played by Martin O’Neill’s Celtic at times.

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“Livingston have three centre-backs who are strong, big, and effective,” said the BT Sport analyst. “But I played under a man at Celtic for five years who always had three strong centre-backs in Bobo Balde, Joos Valgaeren and Johan Mjallby and no-one criticised the physicality then. It’s effective. You play with what you have.

“If you have Lee Miller as your centre-forward, a terrific header of the ball, there is nothing wrong with playing it from your right-back in to your front man,” he added. “But we’ve got great little midfield players too. Little Scott Pittman, Keaghan Jacobs, Nicky Cadden,  Josh Mullin, some really good talented footballers. We can play. 

“What is the ‘correct’ way to play football? Every manager will have his own views. But we’re not one-dimensional or long-ball versions. That is unfair. Hopefully over these next two games in the play-offs we will show people that we can play. We are a very effective team and we have shown that by finishing second.”

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Hartson’s time at Livingston was a happy coincidence, borne of him moving to Edinburgh and a phone call to Rab Douglas to the effect that he was looking to keep his eye in on a low-key basis for a few days during the week. Hopkin was on the phone within 10 minutes.

“I told him: ‘Give me a bag of balls, a couple of goalkeepers, your strikers and a couple of other players to work with’... I’ve got 20 years playing at the very highest level – I’ve played with some of the world’s best strikers – and I’d like to see if I can be of any benefit to your guys’. He said, ‘John, it’s a no brainer. I’ll see you Tuesday!’ That’s what I’ve done these last 10 months. I’ve passed on the advice I got from guys like Mark Hughes, Henrik Larsson, Ian Wright, Paul Merson and Dennis Bergkamp.”

Whatever happens now, it is harsh indeed that Hopkin is not being considered for manager of the year, when the plaudits are going to Jack Ross, Brendan Rodgers, Neil Lennon, Stephen Robinson, Derek McInnes or Steve Clarke. “There’s an argument for all of them but in my opinion David Hopkin has had a great season. It’s an incredible story.”
Indeed it is. And it isn’t finished yet.

Watch Livingston v Partick Thistle in the Ladbrokes Premiership play-off final first leg on Thursday, May 17 on BT Sport 1 from 7:15pm. BT Sport is where the best go head to head, bringing you live coverage of the Ladbrokes Premiership and Betfred League Cup. For more info visit