BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
JIM LEISHMAN shook up Scottish football when he guided little Livingston into Europe.
However, the former Lions gaffer reckons David Hopkin has gone one step further by achieving immortality in West Lothian.
Giant images of a celebrating Leishman still adorn the walls of the Tony Macaroni Arena after he secured a third-place finish in the club’s maiden campaign in the old Scottish Premier League in 2002.
Staff at Livi may just need to free up wall space for another portrait after Hopkin belied all expectations, a minuscule pool of players and a comparatively minute budget to notch promotion to the Premiership.
“Any special achievement needs a special leader,” lauded Leishman. “David Hopkin has brought together a group of players, moulded them into something terrific and the club have reaped the benefits.
“Like any manager, he might have a decision to make [about his future], but he is worth his weight in gold to Livingston. To achieve consecutive promotions is amazing.
“I’ve been there before with Dunfermline. We won promotions from the old Second Division to the First , then to the Premier League the following season so I know exactly how he feels. He’ll be on Cloud Nine and it will live for him forever – that’s immortality for David.
“It’s definitely one of the biggest achievements in the club’s history. They had one of the smallest budgets in the Championship, let alone among the playoff contenders. So to beat Dundee United and Partick Thistle – not losing any of those matches, either home or away – is incredible.”
Hopkin, who has been linked with the vacancy at Carlisle United, will meet with the Livingston board later in the week to discuss a new contract as his future hangs in the balance.
Leishman added: “I hope he stays at Livingston, enjoys the experience of being a Premiership manager and I hope those players enjoy it because they’ve earned it.
“There will be ups and downs, difficult moments – but all he needs to do is finish 10th and he is even more of a legend than he already is!”
Leishman has the honour of being the first ever manager of Livingston in their current guise after they contentiously usurped Meadowbank Thistle in 1995, before returning for a second stint at the turn of the millennium, and he retains a passion for the progress of his old club.
The 64-year-old has seen Livi endure two separate administration events – the most recent of which saw them demoted to the bottom tier in 2009 – and attendances plummet in comparison to their glory days.
Nevertheless, Leishman is adamant promotion can herald the start of a bright, sustainable era at the club.
“I remember when I was there we were getting around 8,000 fans for every home game. That was the average,” he continued. “It’s easy for others to criticise but the supporters are there.
“The club works hard but they have endured a hellish time and perhaps some fans have dropped away. However, there is a hardcore there to build upon.
“Fans will come out in their numbers next season. It is a great chance for families to take their kids to see top-class football in Livingston – it’s a young fanbase with potential to grow.
“West Lothian is getting bigger, developing and these fans who can’t get through to Glasgow or Edinburgh now have a top-flight team to support. It’s a very exciting time.”
While Leishman admits the resources used to build his free-flowing Livingston side compared to Hopkin’s band of over-achievers was night and day, he sees the same work ethic and unity as he witnessed 15 years ago – and has no doubt that will stand them in good stead next term.
“Even when we were in the First Division, we were already building a side capable of playing in the top-flight,” recalled Leishman. “We had players like David Fernandez, Marvin Andrews, Javier Sanchez Broto, Steven Tosh – good, good players.
“We added to that base with guys like Quino, Rubio and Barry Wilson. Experienced players who were still burning with ambition.
“It’s not about comparing this Livingston team with the one we had. That was a different time, different players and different budgets available. However, there were no superstars there, no big egos – a bit like the dressing room there now – and even exceptional talents like David Fernandez had that work ethic you needed.
“That was a huge part of a very special campaign.”