SPFL Premiership Play-off Preview

Premiership Play-off Final – Livingston v Partick Thistle

(featured image: https://ptfc.co.uk)

First LegThursday 17th May 2018, 19:45. The Tony Macaroni Arena – Live on BT Sport

Second LegSunday 20th May 2018, 15:30. The Energycheck Stadium @ Firhill – Live on BT Sport

The 2017/18 SPFL season has been full of twists and turns, incredible matches and high drama right to the very end. Only two more issues remain outstanding; the Scottish Cup Final will be contested on Saturday between Celtic and Motherwell, and the last remaining Premiership place will be decided over a two-legged play-off between Partick Thistle and Livingston.

When Craig Curran opened the scoring for Ross County at McDiarmid Park on Saturday, the Jags were heading for automatic relegation as they slipped to the bottom of the league. However, St.Johnstone would go on to equalise, condemning the Staggies to last place. In addition to that, Kris Doolan popped up with a crucial goal at Dens Park to make sure Alan Archibald’s side secured 11th place in the Premiership off their own back.

Livingston finished best of the rest in the second tier behind Championship winners St.Mirren to qualify for the Premiership play-off semi-final. There they defeated Dundee United over two legs to advance to the final. That set up this winner-takes-all tie with the first leg at Almondvale on Thursday and the return at Firhill on Sunday.

Building on successful seasons

Season 2016/17 was a memorable one for both these sides. Having been relegated from the Championship the previous season, Livi bounced back at the first time of asking. David Hopkin guided the Lions to promotion as League One Champions. Partick Thistle, meanwhile, finished in the top six of the Premiership for the first time ever, their highest league finish since 1981.

Neither side had such lofty ambitions for this season. A period of consolidation was expected for both. Thistle’s aim was, as ever, to secure their Premiership status during their fifth successive season in Scottish football’s top flight. Likewise, Livi would do well to finish mid-table and secure Championship football again in their first season back in that division.

There the similarities end as Livi have confounded all expectations to take their place in this play-off final and are now just 180 minutes away from the Premiership.

What the f*** are you doing?

Some within the Partick Thistle camp foresaw the difficulties that lay ahead for the Jags after that historic 2016/17 top-six success. The legendary John Lambie, who sadly passed away last month, had a warning for the current Thistle boss. Alan Archibald explains how, in his own inimitable style, Lambie asked “what the f*** are you doing finishing in the top six, son?” He went on, “Don’t do things like that as they’ll expect it every year.”

After Lambie’s death, Partick Thistle dedicated their home Premiership fixture against Hamilton Accies to one of Scottish football’s most colourful characters. The Pure Fitbaw team was honoured to be invited along to hear past players Gerry Britton and Chic Charnley reminisce about some of their favourite Lambie stories.

On the pitch, the team was able to channel some of that energy and inspiration to earn just a seventh league win of the season. The club also renamed the North Stand at Firhill, The John Lambie Stand, in a “fitting and lasting tribute” to their former manager. On Sunday, Jags fans seated there and elsewhere in the ground will hope that once again, the team will rise to the occasion in what will be the most important match to have been played in front of the newly renamed stand.

Hopkin’s heroes

David Hopkin, the former Morton midfielder who had a hugely successful playing career in England with Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Leeds United and Bradford City, is on the verge of guiding Livi to back-to-back promotions.

Livi lost just 8 games in the Championship this season, the same number as Champions St.Mirren. The Buddies still finished a comfortable 12 points above the Lions as Livi had 6 more draws. However, it was an outstanding campaign for Livi nonetheless.

Underdogs

When they faced Dundee United in the play-off semi final, they were the clear underdogs against a United side with a far bigger budget. But Livi set about United in a physical and aggressive manner in the first leg at Tannadice that saw them take a one-goal advantage back to West Lothian for the second leg after a 2-3 victory in a pulsating match.

United were much better in the second leg, but Livi held out for a 1-1 draw to see them through to the final.

The SPFL play-off format has historically favoured the Premiership side over the years. Only Hibs have been relegated from the Premiership through the play-offs since their introduction in the 2013/14 season. Livi will be well aware of that, and will be determined to buck that trend.

The Final

So on to the final itself, and what can we expect?

The sides met in the group stage of the Betfred Cup way back in July. It was 1-1 on the day, Keaghan Jacobs cancelling out Chris Erskine’s opener. Livi went on to take the penalty shoot-out en route to topping the group and a very creditable run to the quarter-finals. Thistle also qualified from the group, losing to St.Johnstone in the last 16.

I don’t expect the first leg on Thursday to be decisive, so a repeat of July’s draw could well be on the cards.

On league duty, Championship runners-up Livi had just the fourth-best goals for tally in the division and were joint third for goals conceded. They only lost 3 times at home in the league – once against St.Mirren, once against Queen of the South, and also in the last game of the season against ICT, when their second spot was already guaranteed.

Compare that to Thistle, who managed just 31 goals in 38 league games, conceding 61 goals to finish with the top flight’s worst goal difference of -30. The Jags picked up only one third of their overall points total on the road, 11 points, tasting an away victory just twice all season. One of those was on the last day against a weakened Dundee side who were already safe.

Livi should therefore rightly fancy their chances in the home leg on Thursday. Thistle would likely take a draw just to keep the tie alive heading back to Firhill on Sunday.

It could be tense. It might not be a classic. But it’s all to play for and a huge match for the players, fans, and staff of both clubs. Good luck to all involved!

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