Livi marched into the Quarter Final draw of the Irn Bru Cup after a dramatic last gasp Friday night victory over the Northern Irish side Crusaders in Belfast.
The Lions went into the match as favourites, despite their opponents being top of the Northern Irish Premiership and having started the season unbeaten in ten games. The full-time West Lothian men, who’ve also made an impressive start to their league campaign, faced semi-professional opponents at their Seaview stadium. Any sense of complacency would have been eliminated by Crusaders’ most recent performance, which saw them trailing 3-0 before securing a fabulous 4-3 victory after an incredible comeback.
Livi have already endured tough encounters in League One against part-time teams, including some who play on artificial surfaces, so it was likely that this game would present similar challenges. And so it proved.
The early stages of the game were played out tentatively, with neither side seizing the initiative. If anything, Livi were taking their time to come to terms with the artificial surface as players lost their footing or misjudged the bounce of the ball. The small band of travelling fans, supported in much larger numbers by those camped in the Tony Macaroni Arena’s bars and function suites watching the game on TV, were making themselves heard and clearly enjoying this unusual away day.
The Lions had made a couple of notable changes to the starting line-up, with Gary Maley replacing Liam Kelly in goal and young Matthew Knox being given the chance to show his skills in midfield. Both would have an impact on the game. Firstly, Maley took no chances with a low strike from Andrew Mitchell and pushed the ball away with both hands for a corner rather than attempting to clutch it to his body. He did well at the resulting corner, covering his near post to prevent his side from falling behind. Knox, always looking to get on the ball, played a clever through ball for Buchanan that split the home side’s defence but the striker was closed down before he could turn on the edge of the area.
The match lacked a clear pattern and was a scrappy affair, with long balls and free kicks punctuating the play. Livi ended the first half on top, with a series of corners, which ultimately proved fruitless and O’Neill in the Crusaders’ goal remained seriously untested.
Half Time: Crusaders 0-0 Livingston
The home side made two half-time substitutions, hoping to take control in the second half. There was no obvious signs of differences in energy levels between the sides although Livi seemed determined to play at a high tempo and wear their opponents down as the game progressed.
Recognising that the tie had to be concluded on the night, with extra time and penalties if necessary, both teams started to threaten more. Substitute Gault struck a shot from 18 yards but the ball took a significant deflection off an outstretched Livi leg and Maley did well to tip it over the bar for a corner.
Shortly afterwards, it was The Lions’ turn to attack. Buchanan worked some magic in the penalty area and elected to shoot rather than find a teammate, and the ball struck by the legs of keeper O’Neil. Meanwhile, his counterpart, Maley was justifying his starting role at the other end, making another crucial stop with a good save from distance from Carvill.
David Hopkin decided that he’d seen enough and made his first change of the evening, with Nicky Cadden replacing Byrne. Livi’s lack of genuine width had been a surprise, given the effectiveness of both Cadden and Mullin in the early part of the season. With neither starting the match, the manager had strength in depth and the opportunity to alter the formation. Almost immediately, Cadden was on the ball and looking to run at the Crusaders’ back line.
The Lions had a penalty appeal waved away by the Welsh referee when a fierce shot by Liam Buchanan was blocked by a defender, but television replays showed that the official had called it correctly. With only 18 minutes to play, a second substitution by Livi would prove to have an immediate impact on the direction of the game.
Josh Mullin replaced Jackson Longridge and the West Lothian side changed to a back three, with two fast-paced wingers looking to stretch their tiring part-time opponents. Within seconds, Cadden found himself wide on the left and crossed low from the by-line to find Mullin who found the net with his first touch since coming on. Livi, on the ascendency now, looked to kill the game off and Danny Mullen could have doubled his side’s lead but fired a shot wide with his left foot after being put through one-on-one.
With Watt replacing Knox, The Lions looked to maintain their advantage but Crusaders were still threatening with each attack. Both sides were looking to counter as the game opened up and chances at both ends were increasing, firstly through Owens for the home side and Buchanan for the visitors.
With full-time fast approaching, Livi were made to pay for their generosity in front of goal. The Lions twice failed to deal with a ball into the penalty area and Crusaders took advantage. The dangerous Jordan Owens curled an excellent shot with his right foot from sixteen yards around two Livi defenders and the despairing dive of Maley to find the far corner, drawing his side level at 1-1 with 88 minutes on the clock.
However, just when extra time seemed an inevitability, there were more twists to come. Shortly after the fourth official had indicated four extra minutes were to be played, Livi had an excellent chance to win it. A fast counter attack left Liam Watt with only O’Neill to beat but his right foot shot was choked past the far post when a simple sideways pass to Mikey Miller would have left his teammate with an open goal.
The four added minutes had come and gone when Danny Mullen passed to the overlapping Cadden on the left wing. His low cross found Buchanan with his back to goal in the six yard box. He held up the ball under pressure from two Crusaders defenders and rolled it back to Scott Pittman who struck the ball into the net from 10 yards with the last kick of the game. The small band of travelling fans showed their relief and delight, celebrating the last-gasp winner with their heroes at the side of the pitch.
So, Livi go into the last eight and look forward to Monday’s Quarter Final draw in a competition that The Lions won two years ago. Let’s hope that this never-say-die attitude brings the team more rewards this season.
Crusaders: O’Neill, Burns, Beverland (Gault 45), Coates, Lowry (Forsythe 45), Mitchell, Carvill, Cushley (Heatley 64), Caddell, Owens, Clarke
Subs not used: Soares, Holden, Docherty, McLean
Goals: Owens (87)
Livingston: Maley, Miller, Longridge (Mullin 73), Lithgow, Halkett, Knox (Watt 79), Byrne (Cadden 60), Pittman, Buchanan, Crighton, Mullen
Subs not used: Kelly, Neill, Carrick, Sinclair
Goals: Mullin (74), Pittman (90)
Referee: David Morgan (Wales)
Match Report: Calum Brown