The Livingston Horror Show
Halloween is approaching, a day associated with all things gruesome and horrific. As a fan of a Scottish football team, there have been far too many games where I have witnessed performances that can only be described using those two words.
The life of being a Livingston fan has brought its fair share of horrific moments, from the top flight all the way to the low depths of the old 3rd Division that continue to haunt me to this day. All fans of teams in Scottish football will have those games that they just can't seem to get out of their head for all of the wrong reasons.
As it is Halloween season, it seems a suitable time to reflect on what is my worst experience as a Livingston fan in my near 20 years going to games. Halloween is always a time to get out of your comfort zone and face your fears, with this piece giving me a chance to do so whilst exercising some demons that have haunted me for many years.
Stranraer 5-2 Livingston - 4th May 2016
This may be unusual for a fan in Scottish football to say but I mean every word of this. There is no team I hate more in Scotland than Stranraer.
In a bizarre campaign in the Scottish Championship where Livi only wanted to win games in emphatic fashion - Livi won 5 of their 8 games by scoring 3+ goals - the Lions ended the 2015/16 season in the Play-Off spot for relegation to League 1. Luckily, Livi avoided playing League 1's second and third-placed teams Ayr United or Peterhead just yet, with the chance to play a nice easy fixture against the random part-timers who finished 4th place that season before a real challenge came along. Livi were scheduled to play Stranraer, a team we had papped 8-0 only a few seasons prior, surely this was gonna be a walk in the park.
A fresher faced Angus decided it would be a great idea to embark on the near 6-hour journey down to Stranraer and back in order to see his team come away with a convincing win down the South West coast. Spirits were high as the supporters' bus made its way down to Stranraer, eventually reaching Stair Park, anticipating a sure-fire victory. To get to the away section, we had to walk through the home support where we were met by some rowdy teens giving us a great deal of grief, the welcome we all expect away from home.
The game started and Livi went 1-0 up through Jordan White and it was time to give it large back to the wee gimps on the other side of the fence as the demolition had begun. Little did we know that we were going to be on the receiving end of said demolition.
In the way that we see so often in horror films, the first blow you deal the dreaded monster isn't one that hurts the villain, it's one that angers it. Stranraer equalised four minutes later through Mark McGuigan before Andy Stirling curled home a belter around keeper Marc McCallum. This League 1 side were not only outplaying us but embarrassing us completely. By the 40 minute mark, Willie Gibson smashed home a low free-kick to give Stranraer a stunning 3-1 lead before half time. Us Livi fans were stunned at the defensive shambles that had occurred in front of us, knowing we were in big trouble if there wasn't a big second half.
The second half began and the calamity continued, this time Livi being lucky to not concede again through major errors from a shambolic backline. A lifeline was given through Liam Buchanan after some excellent work by Jordan White - arguably the only players who showed up that night - and we were back in the game. Sure, we had ridden our luck but we were very much back in it and had the quality to go on and win this game.
So Stranraer then scored their 4th two minutes later.
I still have nightmares of Morgyn Neil smashing the ball off Craig Malcolm and fumbling about like the headless body in Re-Animator, with the striker going onto hit the post after waltzing past our then number 15. The shot would rebound of our keeper McCallum with Mark McGuigan reacting quickest to fire home the 4th goal. Morgyn Neil's horrendous night came to an end immediately after, being substituted for former Rangers defender Darren Cole.
Now how could Cole match the performances from the team prior to him coming on? Well only by scoring an own goal of course! Willie Gibson yet again danced past our defence before hitting a cross into the box which struck the unfortunate Cole and head into his net.
5-2. 5-2 away to Stranraer. Had anyone ever conceded 5 goals to Stranraer before?
In all seriousness, Stranraer were phenomenal on this night and thoroughly deserved their victory. 5 was extremely generous as it could have been double figures on that dreary rainy night down the west coast. The likes of Willie Gibson and Mark McGuigan absolutely embarrassed us on that night in a game that was a huge lesson for a number of our players. The Lions squad that day featured current players Scott Pittman and Johs Mullin as well as the likes of Jordan White, Liam Buchanan, Danny Mullen, Mark Fotheringham and Sam Stanton, players of good calibre who should not have been played off the park in this manner. To this day, it is the second-worst defence that Craig Halkett has led, with only the Hearts side of last season pipping this shambles.
Thankfully, Livi had a chance to avenge their errors only three days later in the second leg of the fixture. Goalkeeper Marc McCallum came to the away fans who made the 240-mile round trip to apologise, insisting the players would make up for the worst performance in the club's history. As the old saying goes, it's the hope that kills you.
Livingston 4-3 Stranraer AET (Stranraer Win 8-6 On Aggregate) - 7th May 2016
There was still optimism in the air as the second leg came around as surely we couldn't get any worse. 3 goals was always going to be hard to turn around so Livi had to come out strong straight away to give us the best possible chance.
And to be fair to the team that day, they did exactly that. Livi went into half time with a convincing 2-0 lead, with goals from Liam Buchanan and Jordan White bringing even more hope to the Almondvale faithful. Buchanan rounded Stranraer keeper Cameron Belford before Jordan White scored from an indirect free kick right before half time. Only one goal to go, we could absolutely do this.
If the 5-2 loss in the first leg wasn't a sign that it just wasn't to be for Livi in this play-off, then Stranraers first goal absolutely confirmed that the Lions were destined for League 1 football.
Livi remained in control in the second half but were hammered a stunning blow by a wonder strike from Paul Cairney. The former Hibs man received the ball about 35 yards away from goal, taking a touch and hammering a hopeful volley perfectly towards goal. The effort was stunning and left keeper McCallum with absolutely no chance, giving Stranraer some breathing space yet again. The goal sent the Stranraer bench into pandemonium, with the coaching staff spending the next minute smacking the top of the dugout, antagonising the Livi support.
The goal certainly knocked the stuffing out of Livi who produced a turgid performance up until the arrival of Danny Mullen on the 71st-minute mark. Mullen provided Livi with some much-needed energy and took the game to Stranraer but Livi still found it hard to get a breakthrough.
Livi needed two goals as the game reached the final minute of normal time, where the tenacious Mullen finally got his reward by scoring Livingston's third. As the game drew closer to ending and culminating in the Lions relegation, Livi were awarded a free kick in the 94th minute, the last chance to save their season.
For some reason, Craig Halkett was lining the free-kick, a centre-half who would later go on to show great goalscoring capabilities but only had one goal this season and never took set-pieces. Fans around the ground turned to one another in disbelief. Why is such a big moment falling on this young centre half? What are we playing at? We're doomed. He's gonna smash it well ov... OH MY GOD, WHAT A GOAL YES!
Halkett stepped up and fired the free-kick low and right past Belford to take the tie to extra time in the dying embers. The crowd went wild as the Lions support now returned the favour to the Stranraer coaching staff by smacking the top of the dugout in total exuberance.
What a dramatic state of affairs and suddenly we were in the driving seat. Surely they would crumble as we dealt the most vicious of blows in quick succession allowing us to finish them off and send them packing to enjoy Alloa away next season.
However, if this were a Friday the 13th film, Stranraer were most definitely Jason Voorhees as no matter what devastating blow we dealt them, they came crawling back to inflict us with an even harsher one. As if they were crawling straight out of Crystal Lake, Stranraer were not to be denied on their quest to sink Livingston on this afternoon.
The first half of extra time saw very little action, as Livi were unable to get that all-important goal to give them the lead in the tie. It was all to play for in the last 15 minutes of the game but it would be Stranraer who took command of the game and delivered a devastating double-tap to kill us off for good.
Liam Dick and Jamie Longworth put the final nails in the coffin for Livi as we chased for that all-important goal but it just wasn't meant to be for the Lions. Stranraer over the whole of the tie thoroughly deserved the victory and after a poor season, we deserved to be relegated. Still doesn’t stop me being totally bitter towards the club though, how dare they relegate us after all?
Surprisingly, David Hopkin would be the "final girl" of this Horrorshow and survive this onslaught with his job intact. The Livingston board made the bold decision to keep Hopkin on board following this disaster, a choice that many Livi fans, myself included, were outraged by due to the horrific spell we had just endured.
In football, you sometimes have to go through something awful to be rewarded, and by going through this and sticking with Hopkin, we eventually came back stronger than ever. A large overhaul would see David Hopkin and Davie Martindale build the squad that won back to back promotions and set the foundations for the side that have gone on to have two successful seasons in the top flight so far.
It wasn't an easy journey but we're better off now. Sure there were some casualties but look at us now, we play on Sky Sports rather than BBC Alba. We can rile fans up with the simplicity of a plastic pitch. We can now sign and release Anthony Stokes in a matter of weeks. All that pain was worth it for all of these little things. But it still has to be said that the memories from that week in May 2016 will occasionally cause some moments of PTSD.
This Halloween season, many people will be kept up late through the images and horrors from the likes of Leatherface, Michael Myers or Pinhead. For me, it'll still be, and always will be, Paul Cairney.