At 39 years of age and having left Aberdeen last summer to join a Livingston side widely expected to be battling relegation from the Championship, Neil Alexander’s career at the top level appeared to have come to an end. Not necessarily so, as it transpires.
A matter of weeks after turning 40, the former Hearts goalkeeper now finds himself potentially just seven games from a remarkable return to Scotland’s top flight. Livingston, newly promoted after winning the League One title last season, have defied all the odds to seize second place in a division containing several more established and more expensively-assembled teams.
With three games of the regulation season remaining, they have secured their play-off place and only newly-crowned champions St Mirren – with whom they drew in Paisley on Saturday – sit above them. David Hopkin’s fearless team go into the play-offs with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Alexander, who left Livingston 15 years previously to join Cardiff City and kick-off a decade and a half in the upper echelons of British football, is astounded at how well his return to the West Lothian club has gone.
“This season has definitely exceeded my expectations, 100 per cent,” he told the Evening News. “When I first signed, it was just good to get back playing, but there was a part of me wondering if we’d be in a relegation dogfight from the start with the likes of Dumbarton and Brechin, and whether it would be one of those seasons when you’re conceding three or four goals every game and not enjoying it. But I’m totally surprised and delighted with how it’s gone. It hasn’t half been enjoyable.”
Hopkin is sure to feature prominently when nominations are made for the various manager of the year awards. Alexander has been highly impressed with the way the former Scotland internationalist has got the Lions punching significantly above their weight. “There are loads of different reasons it’s gone so well,” said the veteran keeper. “We’ve got a good squad, a great bunch of lads with great attitudes, a great spirit in the dressing-room, a will to win, a good manager whose man-management is excellent. He has put together a good squad of hard-working lads who will run through a brick wall for him. The results he’s had speak for themselves. He got promoted last year and then he’s done an unbelievable job this year when people were tipping us for relegation. He’s brought in the right calibre of player and he’s done a fantastic job with the budget he’s got. He’s been a breath of fresh air.”
Hopkin has instilled a style which has made Livingston one of the most tricky opponents in the division, as evidenced by the fact they have lost only six of their 33 fixtures thus far.
“We’re very hard to beat,” said Alexander. “We press, we work hard and we try and play in the opposition half. Some people might label us a long-ball team because we get the ball forward quickly but when we get in the opposition half we try and play a bit and create chances. We’re pretty solid at the back and we’re a threat going forward.
“I don’t think teams like playing us because we make it uncomfortable for them. It’s never a nice game for our opponents – it’s a bit of a cup tie, high intensity, in your face, getting balls into the box to put them under pressure. If you can get the mental edge where teams don’t like playing you, you’re half-way there.”
Regardless of whether or not they are able to pull off the unlikely feat of back-to-back promotions from League One to the Premiership, Alexander believes the fact they are even in contention to do so is a sign that the club are in rude health after a decade of difficulty on and off the pitch since they last played in the top flight in 2006.
“Dundee United, St Mirren, Dunfermline and Inverness would have been the favourites to win the league, and then you’ve got the likes of Falkirk, Morton and Queen of the South who are always there and thereabouts,” said Alexander.
“Our aim at the start of the season was to avoid relegation. Once we did that, we started thing about getting the play-offs. We’ve done that, so the next aim is to secure second place and make the play-offs that bit easier. But just getting to the play-offs is a remarkable achievement – the boys can be so proud of themselves.
“We’ve had a really positive season and hopefully the club have turned a corner since winning the league last season and then kicking on and potentially having back-to-back promotions. Hopefully the club is in a better place financially and can now go from strength to strength because it’s a fantastic little club that gives young talent the chance to play. It feels like the club’s going in the right direction and it’s great to be part of.”
After a year as back-up to Joe Lewis at Aberdeen last season following his exit from Hearts, where he enjoyed two impressive campaigns, Alexander has been revitalised by his move to Livingston, where he has started 41 of their 43 matches in all competitions. As further highlighted by a sensational save from St Mirren’s Lewis Morgan on Saturday, age is proving no barrier for a man who was about to play for Rangers in a UEFA Cup final at this point ten years ago.
“I just wanted to play as much football as I could before I hung the gloves up,” he said.
“I felt I could still offer something after I left Aberdeen, and Livingston came in and made me feel wanted. Even at 39, they were desperate to get me and they kept phoning me over the summer. It was nice to feel like that.
“I had obviously been at the club before and the manager sold it to me with what he wanted to do. He’s been bang on. It’s been a good season for me. I’m feeling good and I just want to play as long as I can. I feel like I’ve contributed to the team. I just want to enjoy this season and then in the summer I’ll evaluate what happens next.
“I’ll know myself when it’s time to hang up the gloves and when I’m not doing myself justice, but at the minute I feel I’ve still got something to offer and I’m still enjoying it. I look forward to coming in every day and being part of the banter in the dressing-room.
“We’ve got a young dressing-room and it helps to keep me young. Gordon Marshall, my goalie coach at Aberdeen, played until he was 43, David James played into his 40s. I’m not trying to break any records – I just want to do myself justice.”