There's life in Livingston yet, argues manager Mark Burchill
There have been plenty of moments when, with a rueful smile, Mark Burchill has wondered if every managerial job would be as challenging as the last four months at Livingston.
He reels off some of the problems he has faced: a five-point deduction, reports of the club entering administration, having to cut a four-figure amount from his weekly budget, one of his players coping with the sudden death of a close family member.
There is no exasperation to Burchill, though. The opportunity to manage came earlier than he expected, but he was fully prepared. "I started my coaching badges when I was 24, so I'm 11 years into a plan," he said.
"I could have picked 1,000 easier jobs for my first in management, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.
"I went into it with my eyes wide open. I've been in football for near enough 18, 19 years and there's nothing I've not seen in dressing rooms."
|Scottish Championship standings|
|11th||Livingston||35||-13||24 (after 5 point deduction)|
He has provided Livingston with hope. A season pockmarked by setbacks, disappointments, crises and tragedy has also delivered a Petrofac Training Cup success - which Darren Cole played a part in despite the loss of his cousin days before - and most crucially an opportunity to avoid relegation.
With one round of games left, Livingston stand second bottom of the Championship, ahead of Alloa on goal difference and one point away from the team in third bottom - Cowdenbeath - and safety.
That scenario alone is testament to Burchill's work. His first task, following the departure of John McGlynn last December, was a trip to Ibrox. Livingston lost 2-0, leaving them five points behind Alloa at the bottom of the league.
The previous month, the club had been docked five points for breaching Scottish Professional Football League rules relating to non-payment of tax, which contributed to the team being adrift.
Burchill's fourth game in charge was a home match against Cowdenbeath, which came directly after media reports that the club was about to fall into administration. "It was on the six o'clock news, so my team talk was, 'don't worry, we're not going into administration'," Burchill said.
"There have been another two or three off-field things that have not helped, but it's a fantastic learning curve.
"We've got a young squad and the whole situation has arisen because of the five-point deduction and then a lot of the games became more pressurised. The players started to feel that every game was a must-win. I was trying to go the other way and say, 'don't feel pressure. Let me feel the pressure and you go out there to express yourselves'.
"They've come to terms with that now, but we've had a wee bit of luck in games and won them, which is when confidence comes back."
Livingston had been bottom of the Championship for almost a full five months, but Burchill has led the team into a spell of rejuvenation. There was a time when the club looked beyond rescue, but Burchill has held his nerve and his principles. He did not seek relief or security in defensive tactics or a siege mentality.
A much-travelled striker - he has played for 14 clubs, including a spell in Cyprus - but still only 34, Burchill understood the dynamics of playing in the Championship but also the need to help and nurture his young, inexperienced squad.
|Mark Burchill's former clubs|
|Celtic, Birmingham (loan), Ipswich (loan), Portsmouth, Dundee (loan), Wigan (loan), Sheffield Wednesday (loan), Rotherham (loan), Hearts, Dunfermline, Rotherham again, Kilmarnock, Enosis Neon, Esan United...and now Livingston|
"I know this division inside out, I know the players, and if you give people time on the ball in this division, they will cause you problems," he said. "But if you put people under pressure and play on the front foot, try to get in behind them, that's the way [to succeed].
"It's in my nature, I'm a striker, I want to play attractive football, fast-flowing, attacking. I'm not the kind of guy who is going to go out and defend.
"There have been times after games when I've thought maybe we should have sat in, but we ran Hearts close.
"In my first eight games we played Hearts three times and Robbie [Neilson] said to me that we were the best team he had faced, we pushed them very close.
"We're unlucky not to have been out of this situation sooner, we were playing better earlier on and should have got better results, but at least we're there now and in with a chance.
"I've been in relegation battles before and some of them have been very difficult places to go into because the guy at the top was feeling the pressure and it was passing down to the players. I've tried to not do that."
He does not identify a specific change that has led to the team losing only twice in their last nine games and haul themselves into a position where safety is now within reach. Livingston are simply converting more of their chances, and crucially have been scoring first in recent games, reducing the pressure on the players.
Burchill will not personally keep in touch with the game between Alloa and Cowdenbeath on Saturday, preferring to focus on trying to lead his team to victory over Queen of the South. Whatever happens this weekend, though, Burchill has impressed with the way that he has approached the job.
He is out of contract in the summer, and wouldn't rule out reverting to player/manager next season, having felt it was important to focus on the managerial side since December. The effort has been worth it. "I believed in myself and the Livingston players," he said. "I believed we could do it."