PLAYERS have the day off at Livingston, so it’s an ideal time to command Mark Burchill’s undivided attention.
We sit in the coaches’ office of a club eager to secure a place in the new Scottish Premiership play-offs. Burchill reclines in his black leather seat to consider the possibility with Livingston just two points outside the play-off places.
As both player and assistant manager, he can’t mask his frustration at the play-off structure. It is heavily weighted in favour of the second-bottom club in the Premiership.
Firstly, teams finishing third and fourth in the Championship face each other in a two-legged play-off quarter-final. The winner then faces the team finishing second in a two-legged semi-final. Whoever prevails then meets the Premiership team in a two-legged final. The source of Burchill’s grievance is that there is no winner-takes-all meeting.
Having played in England’s Championship with the likes of Portsmouth, Ipswich Town and Birmingham City, he knows the excitement generated by the play-off final at Wembley. The 33-year-old is desperate for Livingston to be involved in the Scottish equivalent but feels the SPFL have missed a trick by not staging a one-off final. “It’s really disappointing,” says Burchill. “I just look at England, where you’ve got the play-off final – the £90million game that everyone wants to get to. It’s almost the biggest game in England, even above the FA Cup final. In Scotland we had an opportunity to do that.
“It wouldn’t have been the £90m game, it might have been the £5m game. I don’t know what you would’ve called it. You could have had the Premiership team versus the Championship team, winner takes all at Hampden. That would be fantastic for the country.
“It hasn’t been set up like that. If you finish third or fourth in the Championship, you’re going to have to play six games to get into the top flight. That’s going to be very difficult. The Premiership team are going to study your tactics inside out, they’ll know your players and everything about you. I’m not going to say it’s impossible but it’s heavily stacked against the teams in the Championship.
“We will just be delighted if we can get in there. With the way we’re playing just now, I would take us to beat anyone. That’s what we’ve got to believe.”
Burchill’s goal at Dens Park on Saturday secured a 1-0 win that leaves Livingston well placed to achieve their aim. It was only his second league start of the campaign. He isn’t satisfied with that, either.
“This season I was thinking I want to play as much as I can and get this team in the play-offs, because that’s what I believe we can achieve. To have only started two games all season, I’m devastated. I think I’d have added to the team if I’d started more. I don’t want to sound blasé, but if I’m not making a difference at this level then I’ll retire.
“The manager [John McGlynn] has the final say on who plays. That’s just one of those things we’re going to have to deal with as a management team. I would never say ‘play me’ if it’s not the best thing for the team. I want Livingston Football Club to do as well as possible. If that’s with me in the team, then I’ll say that. If it’s with someone else in the team, I’ll say that as well.”
This time last year, Burchill was playing in sunny Thailand with Esan United but returned to his native West Lothian to take his first steps on the coaching ladder. He looks comfortable in his surroundings and is fully committed to Livingston, however, the move was also a means to an end.
“I want to be a manager in the future, that’s what my goal is. This is my apprenticeship,” he says. “I can’t think of anyone better to learn off than John McGlynn. He’s the hardest-working manager I’ve ever seen.
“It’s the best decision I’ve made to come back here. I still had another year on my contract in Thailand. I miss the weather, obviously, but I’m back with my mates and family and the kids are settled in school. I think the players respect my coaching aspects and what I can do as a player. When I’m on the park, I know what me and the gaffer have spoken about so I can add those bits to the game.
“We play a lot of football with Livingston in this division. Even when I was down in England there were a lot more long balls. Technically, the level of football in Thailand was really high. I think you get that with any Asian country.
“It’s the same with a lot of foreigners. Technically they are fantastic. You play in a five-versus-two box and you can’t get the ball off them in training. They aren’t great tactically, though. They’re still ten years behind us I’d say.
“My kids were getting two hours of football every day in the sunshine in Thailand. The pitches were like Wembley. We can’t get outside for ten minutes in our weather. That’s the contrast. But I love it here and I’m looking forward to helping Livingston push towards the play-offs.”