What's next for Livingston after Gary Holt's resignation?
Holt intimated in the wake of Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat by St Mirren that he was considering his position. That was the club’s fifth league loss in a row. They sit in tenth place and the team that finished fifth in the league last term is clearly a pale shadow of its former self.
Holt's hand was severely weakened in the summer when playmaker Steven Lawless left and star striker Lyndon Dykes was sold. The amount of money involved meant that Livingston could not say no to Dykes’ departure, but it has left a huge void at the club. The Anthony Stokes experiment did not even get off the ground, Lars Lokotsch and Salim Kouider-Aissa’s impacts was so uninspiring that they touched down on loan at Raith Rovers and Partick Thistle just months after signing, while Jay Emmanuel-Thomas – or JET, as he likes to be known – is still very much on the runway. Goals are a problem at both ends, though. Livingston have not kept a clean sheet since September.
Too many underperformers
Perhaps it’s because of the high standards of the past 18 months, but not many at Livingston have hit the required level. A once miserly defence is too disorganised and leaky, not helped by a big dip in form by on-loan Rangers keeper Robby McCrorie. Captain Marvin Bartley has struggled in midfield, although the blend in that part of the pitch doesn’t look quite right with Jason Holt next to him. Julien Serrano may have scored a lovely goal at Celtic Park, but he and other summer signings such as Matej Poplatnik and Jack Fitzwater haven’t quite fired either. Sometimes it’s best to stick with what you're good at and, in Livi’s case, being a right pain in the arse to play against rather than being more expansive is the best bet.
Walking away from a job in the middle of a pandemic is a brave move, no matter how hard it has become. Livingston had lost their way under Holt. Recruitment was far from his own choice, but he had found it increasingly difficult to get a tune out of the current squad. Home form on an abhorrent synthetic pitch has dipped too – Saints, Motherwell, Kilmarnock, Hamilton and Hibs have all taken three points from the Tony Macaroni Arena. Perhaps the ex-Falkirk boss felt there was nowhere left to go with Livingston. Head of football operations David Martindale insisted it was Holt’s choice to leave – “it is refreshing to see someone making up his mind and sticking by his decision” – but now he and the rest of the board must find the right man to replace him.
They faced this very conundrum in the summer of 2018, when David Hopkin walked away from the club fresh from guiding them to the Premiership. At first, they went down the player/manager route with Kenny Miller, but that lasted a matter of months. Holt came in, steadied the ship and more. Last season’s finish was Livingston’s best for 18 years.
Is experience the answer?
Unlike 2018, when Livingston were on an upward trajectory, there is little margin for error. Martindale has already spoken about appointing a manager who is a “cog” in the machine rather than breaking away from the current formula. Those in power are convinced their strategy works and they will not be moving from it.
That looks likely to rule out current bookmakers’ favourite Tommy Wright, who would prefer to have more autonomy. The odds compilers’ list doesn’t throw up too many obvious names, with Darren Young, Neil McCann, Barry Ferguson and Stewart Petrie. Perhaps of more interest would be someone such as Steven Pressley or Martin Canning, who are keen to get back into work, have managerial experience and may be amenable to slotting into the structure. Livingston’s preference is expected to be a far more seasoned coach, rather than a rookie, so although current captain Bartley has future manager written all over him, now is probably not the time for him to step up.
Work with what you have
While a significant sum of money was recouped when Dykes was sold to QPR, it’s unlikely the new man will have much cash to play with. They will need to get Livingston well drilled, use every ounce of ability at the club’s disposal and restore the Lions to something like their old selves. They will also need to work with Martindale as his assistant, a position he has held since the club was in League One. His expletive-ridden rants have made even Rangers boss Steven Gerrard look on in a mixture of embarrassment and bemusement, but the arrangement – as peculiar as it is – has worked for the majority of the time. Martindale has made it clear that he won’t be going anywhere, so the new man will need to work with him and be well-versed in profanities.
In short, now is not the time for too much experimenting. Hamilton Accies, who currently prop up the division, look in just a perilous state but have previous with relegation battles. Livingston are in a scrap with them, and several others, for survival. In these challenging times, dropping out of the top flight is not desirable. Martindale and Co know that all too well and while they will not rush into an appointment, the next one has to be the right one, and more than likely an experienced one. Relegation did not do kind things to the club in the mid-noughties, and having worked so hard to get back to Scotland’s top table, keeping a seat at it is so very important.