Livi made the long trip to Stranraer hoping to bounce back from last week’s unfortunate defeat with a victory against a Stair Park side that was undefeated in the last seven outings.
The Blues, having already troubled the League One leaders at the Tony Macaroni Arena when the sides last met in a game that ended goalless, no doubt fancied their chances of taking something from the fixture on home soil.
David Hopkin made three changes to the starting eleven, with Raffa De Vita, Shaun Byrne and Sean Crighton missing out while there were starts for Danny Mullen, Mark Millar and Alan Lithgow. Indeed, the manager fielded three recognised strikers from the outset in Mullen, Buchanan and Todorov and a change in formation in a defence that accommodated Gallagher, Halkett, Lithgow and Longridge. With Josh Mullin, Mark Millar and Scott Pittman completing the line-up, the team sheet looked to have an attacking feel to it.
Livi started the stronger and had plenty of possession, with Josh Mullin looking particularly threatening wide on the right in the early stages. His effort in the 6th minute brought out a save from Cameron Belford in the Stranraer goal, and The Lions no doubt worried that the keeper would have another inspired display of the type he gave in West Lothian a few weeks ago.
Bulgarian striker, Nikolay Todorov, was a tempting target due to his strong physical presence for the visiting side’s long balls but he was well marshalled by the stubborn defence and attempts to hold the ball up for midfielders usually failed to deliver to anything. With 17 minutes on the clock, neat interplay between Mullin and Buchanan saw Livi’s top scorer shoot tamely from 12 yards out and Belford was able to save comfortably.
period of scrappy play followed, with Danny Mullen and Scott Agnew exchanging attempts without seriously troubling either goalkeeper. Despite having plenty of possession and clear territorial advantage, the visitors were unable to convert their superiority to goals. The impressive Halkett, captain for the day, gave another commanding performance at the back and looked imperious in defence for the league leaders.
HT Stranraer 0-0 Livingston
As the teams reappeared for the second period, the rain began to fall and the ball moved across the surface more quickly than before. The Lions continued to dominate possession, and looked the more likely to score, but genuine goal scoring opportunities were at a premium. However, in the 58th minute, Livi should have taken the lead.
A corner from the right hand side was fired in by Josh Mullin and, following a clearance and a second cross to the back post, the ball found Craig Halkett only 8 yards out but the defender’s header flew wide of the keeper’s right hand post. Stranraer, looking good in possession but without threatening to score, pressed more as the game continued with Wilson and Robertson both shooting from around 30 yards out and forcing Liam Kelly to concentrate on making sure that his handling was perfect.
Just after the hour mark, manager David Hopkin made his first change. Todorov was replaced by Nicky Cadden in an effort to introduce additional pace and attacking menace. After 65 minutes, the first real moment of controversy arrived. Cadden played an excellent defence-splitting pass through to Liam Buchanan, who appeared to be fouled in, or around the edge of, the penalty area. With the visiting supporters looking for a spot kick, referee Napier awarded a free kick to the home side and cautioned Buchanan for simulation.
Shortly afterwards, excellent work from Josh Mullin gave the winger some space in the box but his low cross was intercepted and cleared, much to the frustration of the travelling fans. Stranraer made two substitutions of their own and one these, youngster Kyle Turner, received a yellow card for a cynical foul on Cadden as the Livi wide player knocked the ball into space and looked to move into a dangerous position.
As the game edged towards the closing minutes, Sean Crighton replaced Danny Mullen and immediately moved to a forward position rather than his normal defensive role. Only two minutes later, with time running out, Livi took the lead. Cadden’s left footed shot from outside the area fell kindly for Buchanan only 8 yards from goal.
He ignored the home side’s appeals for offside and fired a shot that Belford could only parry back to the striker, and he made absolutely no mistake at the second attempt. The Blues felt aggrieved that the flag hadn’t been raised and Robertson received a yellow card for his protests. As the match approached the closing moments, Turner was fortunate not to receive a second yellow card for a deliberate trip on Buchanan as he rushed towards the penalty area.
The resulting free kick, from 20 yards, was nicely struck by Cadden but Belford threw himself to his left to tip the ball past the post at full stretch to keep the score at 1-0. Millar and Crighton both picked up late cautions as The Lions held on to their slender lead and the game ended without Stranraer forcing Kelly into further action. However there was time for youngster Kyle Sampson, who will be 17 years old in June, to make his first team debut with only a few minutes remaining.
FT Stranraer 0-1 Livingston
So, the squad returned to West Lothian with three points, a clean sheet and with their lead extended at the top after second-placed Alloa Athletic could only draw away at East Fife. The long journey home would have been much more enjoyable with the result. It was a hard fought victory but a very welcome return to winning ways. Attention now turns to Tuesday evening’s crucial home game against Stenhousemuir, with The Lions looking to consolidate their place at the top of the league and, with fixtures fast running out, keeping the gap to the chasing pack as wide as possible.
Stranraer: Belford, Robertson, Dick, Bell, Pettigrew, Agnew, Wilson (Turner 64), McGuigan (Kassarate 71), Thomson, Gibson, Malcolm
Subs not used: Barron, McGowan, Currie, Morena, Kemp
Livingston: Kelly, Longridge, Lithgow, Halkett, Gallagher, Mullin, Mullen (Crighton 82), Millar, Buchanan (Sampson 88), Todorov (Cadden 62)
Subs not used: Knox, Sinclair, Maley, Ogilvie
Goals: Buchanan (84)
Referee: Craig Napier
Match Report: Calum Brown