A QUADRAGENARIAN who joined Livingston last summer to wind down his career, Neil Alexander is now nursing the after-effects of a Premiership promotion party.
The goalkeeper turned 40 in March just as Livi accelerated their play-off push, which culminated in Sunday’s euphoric 1-0 win at Partick Thistle to propel them into the top-flight on a 3-1 aggregate.
Bouncing around the Firhill pitch in celebration, Alexander looked as youthful and sprightly as ever. Adrenaline can have that effect. The party continued back at Almondvale that night and the reality of the achievement is only now beginning to sink in two days later.
Alexander enjoyed promotion from the Championship in record-breaking fashion with Hearts in 2015. The wild ecstasy of battling through the play-offs with Livingston having started the season aiming only to stay in the division made for a much more dramatic ending.
Just as staggering is the fact the keeper returned to West Lothian last summer purely to play regularly and see out his career after a year of inactivity as No.2 at Aberdeen. To say his fate this season was unexpected is a slight understatement.
“I never expected this,” Alexander told the Evening News. “My year at Aberdeen was a bit disappointing because I didn’t play. I came to Livingston just to play matches, to see out my career. I wanted to go out by playing as many games as I could and enjoy them. I never in my wildest dreams expected to be in this position, to be looking forward to Premiership football at my age.
“It’s phenomenal, honestly. When I joined Livingston, the aim was survival. Getting into the play-offs was a huge achievement, but to go all the way and beat a Premiership side home and away is an unbelievable achievement. I was lost for words on Sunday but the guys in that dressing-room deserve it. They’ve worked so hard this season.
“They’re a great group and the spirit we have has kept us going all season. We’ve got an inner belief that is probably something I’ve never seen at any other club I’ve been at. I’ve just enjoyed this year so much. There are no big-time charlies here, they are all just good, honest lads who want to improve and work hard for the manager. To get over the line is brilliant.
“The boys have that camaraderie within themselves. We’re 100 per cent behind each other and there’s a great atmosphere about the place. The manager, coaches and the kitman all encourage it and play their part.
“We’ll now be going to Ibrox, Parkhead, Tynecastle, – it’s great. I’m so proud and happy for every single one of the boys, plus the manager and everyone behind the scenes. The manager gets a lot of plaudits and rightly so but everyone behind the scenes has played their part in this success. They all deserve a huge mention. Livingston is a family club and everyone is in it together.”
David Hopkin, the aforementioned manager, is out of contract and due to discuss his future with Livingston’s hierarchy today. Alexander finds himself in the same position but is confident of staying.
“I’m out of contract. The club have made it clear they want me to stay next season,” he explained. “We haven’t sat down and discussed anything because I wanted to concentrate on the play-offs. I wanted to get through and then sit down for talks. Probably this week we will speak and see where we go but there shouldn’t be too many problems.
“I just hope we can keep the manager and keep the nucleus of the squad together. A lot of players are out of contract so I hope we get them re-signed. Then we can maybe add to that and have a right good go next season.”
There are certainly no signs of the veteran goalkeeper losing his touch. In the dying moments of Sunday’s play-off final second leg, he sprung to his right to push away Conor Sammon’s penalty. It was an act of defiance in keeping with Livingston’s entire season.
“We defend for our lives and we’ve done that well this season. Our strength has been defending. We’ve got really solid defenders who put their bodies on the line every week. They throw their heads at balls and, on Sunday, we knew we’d be under pressure like that. We knew Partick Thistle were going to throw everything at us. I thought we were excellent at the back, very resolute.
“The penalty save just topped everything off. It was great to get a clean sheet to finish the season.
“It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t good on the eye, but it was effective and it worked. We had a gameplan and we knew we wanted to frustrate Thistle by slowing the game down, then catch them on the counter. It worked and we’re delighted.”
Alexander knows Livingston will be overwhelming favourites for relegation long before they kick a Premiership ball. They gained promotion from League One to the Championship only 12 months ago and operate one of the lowest budgets of all Scotland’s full-time clubs.
Nonetheless, what they may lack in status they more than make up for in desire, aggression and application. Critics have focused heavily on Livingston’s style of play under Hopkin but visiting Almondvale will be a treacherous experience for many top-flight clubs next year.
“Teams aren’t going to enjoy coming to play us,” smiled Alexander. “It’s not nice, it’s a bit ugly but it’s effective. We play to our strengths and we do it well.
“We’re under no illusions it’s going to be very tough in the Premiership. It could be a relegation battle from minute one but we’re there and we’re just enjoying it just now. We’ll worry about the rest when the time comes.”