Livingston remain the only team Hearts haven’t scored against this season. Goalkeeper Liam Kelly has 13 clean sheets in 26 appearances and is being touted for a Scotland call-up. They travel to Tynecastle Park for Sunday’s Scottish Cup fourth-round tie having walloped their opponents 5-0 at home in the league last month. The Premiership’s relegation certainties are enjoying confounding their critics.
Kelly is pivotal to the success. He saved Steven Naismith’s penalty during September’s 0-0 Premiership draw in Gorgie and kept Hearts out again during December’s mauling in West Lothian.
His last Scottish Cup match was a 1-0 home defeat by East Fife two years ago during a season-long loan at Livingston from Rangers. He won the League One title that year but returned to Ibrox as Livi earned successive promotions to reach the Premiership promised land. Now a permanent signing, 22-year-old Kelly looks perfectly adept at the top level and has developed a habit of frustrating the team he faces this weekend live on BBC One Scotland.
“This time two years ago, we were playing Peterhead away followed by East Fife at home,” he told the Evening News. “If you told me then that beating Hearts would even be a possibility two years down the line, it would have been a massive shock. Hearts having a man sent off at 1-0 had a big bearing on the last game at our place. We’re not daft, we’re honest boys and we understand that. We had a really good night and Hearts had on off night. I don’t think we will see that again on Sunday.
“We are expecting to play Hearts at their best and we will be ready because we know they will be out for revenge. This is what we’ve worked so hard for. You couldn’t ask for any more. Maybe the game wouldn’t be on TV if we hadn’t had the start we’ve had to the campaign. We’ve earned the right to be on this platform. It’s the toughest of tasks but if we perform we have a chance against anybody.”
Livingston’s record against Hearts this season ensures they will make the short trip along the M8 with confidence. “We’re now at Tynecastle but it’s what we want,” explained Kelly. “Would we have picked another tie? Probably not. You want to test yourself against the big boys. Steven Naismith didn’t play last time at our place but he will be playing on Sunday, so it’s another step up. We are going to relish it and give it our best shot.
“Hearts were unbeaten last time we went there and we were the first team to take points off them. We rode our luck a wee bit but the boys are looking forward to going back. We are just loving getting to go to these grounds. There isn’t really a fear factor in our team, we just go for it.
“We were odds-on to go down at the start of the season but we are giving it everything in every game. That’s why we’ve been successful so far but we know we’re only halfway there. Nothing has been won or lost and we aren’t safe yet.”
Kelly is contracted to Livingston until summer 2020 and is repaying the club’s gamble on signing a young keeper with no top-flight experience whatsoever. Knowing so many of the League One title-winning team was still in tact made the wrench of leaving Rangers easier to cope with. He has slotted back in behind the same three-man defence of Craig Halkett, Declan Gallagher and Alan Lithgow. Midfielders Sean Byrne, Scott Pittman and Nicky Cadden are also familiar faces.
“It felt natural coming back in, like I hadn’t been away. That’s why it has worked so well. We all know each other,” said Kelly. “We had a really successful spell near the end of that season in League One and kept a lot of clean sheets. We’ve taken that into the Premiership this year and hopefully we can take it into Sunday as well.
“Knowing how this club was run and the staff here was a major factor in me coming back. With the success of the team over the last couple of years, it’s just a club on a high. I wanted to be a part of that.
“I wasn’t playing at all at Rangers and I’m a football player. I just want to play. It was an easy decision in that respect. If I want to reach the highest level, I need to play games.”
Not even a genius clairvoyant could have predicted newly-promoted Livingston, with the league’s smallest budget, sitting seventh during the Premiership’s winter break. Such is their upward trajectory that knocking Hearts out of the cup on Sunday would not be regarded as a major upset.
“I’d be telling lies if I said I thought it would go as well as this,” said Kelly. “I don’t reflect too much because I move on to the next game, but I did reflect during the break. This move has gone a lot better than I could ever have dreamed of. There are times when the guys have bailed me out and thankfully I’ve been there to help them out as well.”
His performances prompted talk of international recognition. Jamie MacDonald, Scott Bain, Jon McLaughlin and Jordan Archer have all been called into the Scotland squad in the last year to challenge ageing regulars Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon. Kelly won’t spend too much time thinking about whether he is next in line.
“That’s the easiest thing to deal with because I’ve got no control over it. If someone wants to put me in that bracket, I’m just thankful and appreciative of them saying stuff like that. I’ve got no control over who a manager picks. I can only focus on playing well for Livingston every week. If somebody wants to reward me with recognition at that sort of level, I would be absolutely delighted and it would be a dream. Right now, it’s the next game for me and that’s Hearts.”