Saturday’s defeat by league leaders Hearts was the perfect epitome of Livingston’s plight in this season’s Championship – a lot of promise but, ultimately, coming up short just where it matters.
The visit of Robbie Neilson’s high-flying side was always likely to prove difficult given the Tynecastle outfit’s relentless form since last summer – their lead at the top having been stretched to 19 points courtesy of another weekend win.
Taking into account Livi’s five-point deduction, a massive 48 points now separate Mark Burchill’s men from the latest side to leave the Energy Assets Arena with maximum points – Hearts managing to outscore an effort by boyhood Jambo Craig Sives and a Kyle Jacobs penalty.
Yet for long spells of the second half, the Lions were every bit as good as their opponents – if not better. The strike partnership of Jordan White and Ibra Sekajja, in particular, caused the visitors’ central defensive pairing of Danny Wilson and Alim Ozturk all sorts of problems with their movement and willingness to put themselves about.
Although Hearts’ first-half advantage was fully merited, Dutchman Genero Zeefuik’s powerful drive into goalkeeper Darren Jamieson’s far corner the only goal to separate the sides at the break, the anticipated onslaught by the league leaders didn’t materialise.
“I think from the start of the second half until Hearts’ second goal. we probably edged the second half,” a disappointed Burchill stressed afterwards. “We caused them a lot of problems and we should have had a wee bit more care around their box. A couple of times we took bad touches or made the wrong decisions. You’ve got to be on your toes against the best teams in the league and Hearts have undoubtedly got the best players in the league and that’s what happens if you don’t take your chances.
“But it was a good performance and Robbie Neilson said to me at the end ‘what a performance that was – you made it really difficult for us’. So that said it all. I think everyone could see we put up a good performance, but that’s the level we need every single game. We’ve got 13 games to get ourselves out of this and I’ve total belief if we play to that level then we’ll be fine.”
With so much at stake at both ends of the division, referee Brian Colvin was, at times, too quick to flash the yellow card, though Livi captain Jason Talbot was lucky to escape an early shower for a high challenge on Hearts youngster Sam Nicholson that left the winger needing stitches to a nasty head wound.
But Burchill said: “I don’t want to talk about referees although I noticed there were more yellow cards for Livingston players than Hearts and I don’t think there was a really bad tackle in the game. I don’t want to get into it too much but that’s just one of these things.”
The Livi boss was left to rue a glorious opportunity with little more than 15 minutes remaining as Sekajja couldn’t capitalise on an incisive pass ny Kyle Jacobs when bearing down on Neil Alexander’s goal with the score poised at 1-1.
Asked if his striker’s failure to control the ball and get his shot away proved costly, Burchill said: “Undoubtedly because if we go ahead, I was looking at the Hearts fans who were starting to moan, the Hearts players were starting to argue, even their bench was getting a wee bit uptight. But that’s the difference – when you’re a big team these results just happen for you and I’ve been on that end with both Celtic and Hearts. When you’re at the bottom, you just don’t get that luck.”
Although it was a spirited display by Livingston, Burchill will need to rally his troops for part two this weekend as the Lions head to Gorgie, but he stressed: “We’ve put a marker down and we’ll play something similar there. I think, on the day, if you can be a bit more clinical and show a bit more composure in their box then you can win the football match.”