With one of the smallest full-time budgets in Scotland, Livingston achieved Premiership promotion by winning their play-off final and relegating Partick Thistle. Keaghan Jacobs, a product of Livingston’s youth academy, scored the winner at Firhill to take his club into the top flight on a 3-1 aggregate scoreline.
Scenes at full-time were of great contrast as those from West Lothian danced with joy, while the red and yellow shirts around them were disconsolate. David Hopkin’s team have now completed successive promotions after stepping up to the Championship from League One just 12 months ago.
They held a 2-1 lead over Thistle from Thursday night’s first leg at Almondvale – Jacobs was on target then, too – and stretched that advantage thanks to the midfielder’s neat finish shortly after the break. A late penalty by Hearts loanee Conor Sammon was saved by the visiting keeper Neil Alexander as if to compound the hosts’ misery.
Livingston aimed only to avoid relegation last summer but celebrated wildly at the Energy Check Stadium at Firhill just before 5.30pm after finding themselves in the Premiership. Hopkins’s stewardship has been one long upward trajectory since their relegation to League One in summer 2016. Alan Archibald, his Partick Thistle counterpart, now faces questions over his tenure. The Glasgow side were promoted to the top league in 2013 and now return to the second tier after a five-year stay.
Although the atmosphere at Firhill was fervid, much of it stemmed from nerves and tension. Thistle battled for their Premiership existence against a Livingston side which last played top-flight football in 2006. This was their chance to make history.
They overwhelmed their Glasgow opponents in West Lothian thanks to another of their trademark energetic and industrious displays. Goals from Jacobs and Scott Pittman gave them a precious lead to take to Maryhill, albeit a slender one. Thistle were strengthened this time by the return of Chris Erskine and Blair Spittal to midfield.
The opening stages were predictably frantic and competitive. Almost every challenge forced referee John Beaton into a decision one way or the other. Livingston were in no rush whenever play stopped and that irked the home support as play didn’t flow the way they wanted it to. Partick’s aim was to play their way through the opposition, principally by using the craft of No.10 Erskine.
Clear scoring chances were at a premium throughout the first half. Livi’s Craig Halkett glanced Jacobs’ free-kick over Tomas Cerny’s crossbar on 35 minutes. Five minutes later, Jordan Thompson had a shot blocked by Kris Doolan following Alan Lithgow’s long throw. Adam Barton then got his boot in the way of Shaun Byrne’s attempt after the home side got themselves in a defensive fankle.
Thistle finally produced a shot on target in first-half stoppage-time. Spittal took Andrew McCarthy’s pass and ran at the visiting defence. Rather than slip a pass to the unmarked Erskine on his left, he chose to shoot with his left foot from 20 yards. Alexander was equal to the task.
Seconds after the restart, the Championship side struck a potentially fatal blow. Byrne laid the ball off to Jacobs at the edge of the Thistle penalty area and the onrushing midfielder dispatched a precise angled finish low into Cerny’s right corner. As players in black ran around like crazy animals in fits of delirium, it was impossible not to empathise with their delight.
Archibald’s team now needed two goals simply to take this play-off into extra-time. A 3-1 aggregate scoreline was daunting for a group of players low on confidence. Hopkin replaced lone striker Lee Miller with right-back Jack McMillan hoping to consolidate, but that left his team without a natural forward. Their supporters didn’t seem to mind as they reached full voice. Perhaps their most inventive chant of the afternoon was aimed at Thistle substitute Ryan Edwards. “You’re just a ***** Jack Sparrow,” came the chorus as the long-haired midfielder replaced Martin Woods.
Steven Lawless, Spittal and Christie Elliott all had shots at goal during Partick’s expected onslaught. They won a penalty when Alan Lithgow handled substitute Sammon’s shot, but the on-loan Hearts forward saw his spot-kick saved by the imperious Alexander.
At full-time, there was no denying Livingston had earned their place at the top table of Scottish football. Their players bounced around in euphoria in front of the healthy band of travelling fans as they hailed one of the biggest successes of their careers.
Partick Thistle (4-2-3-1): Cerny; McGinn, Barton, Cargill, Elliott; Woods (Edwards 70), McCarthy (Sammon 55); Spittal, Erskine (Booth 75), Lawless; Doolan. Unused subs: Scully, Devine, Penrice, Storey.
Livingston (4-1-4-1): Alexander; Gallagher, Halckett, Lithgow, Longridge; Jacobs; Robinson (Buchanan 79), Byrne, Pittman, Thompson (Cadden 60); Miller (McMillan 68). Unused subs: Maley, Mullin, Frizzell.
Referee: John Beaton.