IN some ways, Steven Lawless has been a victim of his own success. The Livingston winger, formerly on the books at Partick Thistle, has been in scintillating form for Gary Holt’s side this season as the West Lothian club chalked up a remarkable fifth-place league finish. The 29-year-old has thrived in his favoured role as a winger this year, having spent much of the previous two campaigns filling in further back on the pitch.

Lawless’ versatility seems to have worked against his own interests at times. He says he always knew his biggest strengths suited him to a role in the final third, but conceded that the time spent elsewhere on the park provided a sense of determination to make the most of his chance when he was moved further up the pitch this season.

He credits long-time assistant manager David Martindale with playing a huge role as Livi have surged up the SPFL pyramid over the last few seasons, improving year-on-year in each of the last four campaigns. And Lawless thinks that if the 2019/20 season hadn’t been curtailed, his side could have had even more to celebrate.

“He’s a good guy,” Lawless said of Martindale. “Livingston are improving every single year and he’s a big part of that. Long may that continue. He knows what he’s doing and he’s got a way of working that’s got him this far already, so who knows how far he can take the club.

“Who knows, if this season wasn’t finished we might even have got Europe. We certainly weren’t ruling it out. As the season progressed we certainly had a chance of catching teams and the boys were talking about it. Maybe next year Livi will get it.

“He’s been really good for me. The first year I spent the majority of games out of position. The year before I had played a lot of games at left wing-back at Thistle and then I went to Livingston where we played a 3-5-2 and I was the right wing-back.

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“But the way we played, it allowed me to get much further forward and he said to me, ‘I don’t want you defending. You’ll need to do a job but I want you as far up the park as possible’. It worked but this year I’ve been put in my correct position and it’s the best season I’ve had in the SPFL. He’s been great for me, he deserves a lot of credit for what’s gone on at Livingston.

“[Moving further upfield] has helped massively. The last year I was at Thistle, I only started something like 20 games over the season and maybe about half of them were at left wing-back. That season and my first one at Livingston I was playing out of position so my numbers aren’t going to reflect my position.

“This is maybe the first time in three seasons where I’ve had a continued run in my natural position. I think that gave me a good motivation to show I can do that position and post good numbers in that position. I think the seasons not playing there helped me this year.”

It is an opportunity that he has firmly grasped. Eight goals and six assists in the Premiership this season would suggest that Lawless is thriving in his preferred role as a winger. In fact, only three other players – Celtic trio Odsonne Edouard, Ryan Christie and James Forrest – have got a greater combined goals and assist tally than the Livi man. The ex-Motherwell academy player is even ahead of Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos in this regard – even if the scale of his achievements hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

“I didn’t know that! That’s crazy, I wouldn’t have thought that,” Lawless said. “It’s been a good season and I’ve really enjoyed it. I wasn’t great every game – I had some very, very good runs – but if I was off the boil I always knew I would play the next one because of how much David Martindale trusted me.

“He knew how I could affect the game. A lot of it was geared towards getting me the ball in those positions. In other years I was trying to hold onto the ball but this year I was always looking for a killer pass.

“I gave the ball away a lot and that drove Davie nuts at times. There was one time we were playing Hibs away and I got the ball out wide and passed it inside. I remember Davie shouting and screaming at me because I never ran with the ball but then three passes later I had the ball in a more dangerous position. I put the ball in to Sincy [Aaron Taylor-Sinclair] and I remember hearing Davie shouting ‘brilliant’ at me. I always remember that. He was going to shout abuse at me but then two or three passes later we had scored a goal.”

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Lawless’ on-field partnership with Lyndon Dykes has been particularly fruitful, with the winger insisting that the former Queens striker is the perfect foil for him – and a nightmare for opposing defenders to deal with. The towering centre-forward joined up with his new team-mates at Livi last summer after agreeing a move the previous January, with the 24-year-old making the transition to top-flight football seamlessly.

“He’s the complete opposite of me,” Lawless said. “I just try to get as close to him as possible. I didn’t know anything about him when he signed if I’m being honest. I asked some of the boys from Thistle when he signed what he was like because they had played against him and they said he was a good player, but even they didn’t think he would do as well this year in the Premiership as he did.

“Maybe this level suits him better than the Championship, because he was playing with Stephen Dobbie beside him but this year he’s been our focal point. I think that helped him massively as well. He’s the perfect player for me to play with because he’s the opposite of me. He’s got everything that I don’t have.

“He’s rapid, which I didn’t expect, and he’s very physical. I don’t think I’ve ever played with a striker who ruffles up the defenders as much as him, he gets under their skin something awful.

“Every defender in the league must hate playing against him. That’s perfect for me. Obviously, the full-back is worrying about me but it gives me license to drift into positions beside him. Defenders are that worried about him that I can pick up the ball and it’s worked perfectly for both of us. He’s a great player to play with and he’s got attributes that are very difficult to find in a striker.”

During their two-year stay in the Premiership, Livingston have attracted plenty of critics for their style of play. Holt’s side are aggressive, tough-tackling and one-dimensional, the argument goes. The Lions have gained a reputation for defensive and at times agricultural football but Lawless feels this is unwarranted. He might well have a point, too: only Celtic, Rangers and Hibs scored more league goals than Holt’s side this season.

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“Going back to when Livi were in the Championship and we [Thistle] were going to play them in the play-offs, even then when we were talking about them the thing you always go to is the long throw-in because it’s a massive threat,” he said. “I think that gives teams the ammo to say that we’re just a long ball side because not many teams can do that. Not many teams have a player who can put it in from any area.

“It’s massive for us but even in the play-off game, Livingston were a lot better football-wise than we thought. Even at 2-1 down in the first leg, I thought we when we came back to the big pitch at Firhill, they wouldn’t be able to get in about as much and we would be able to pass them off the park. We had a lot more of the ball but on the ball they were still very, very good.

“In my first season at the club we were quite similar but played a little bit more. This year we still do a lot of the same things, we try and turn teams and get them up the park but when we get the ball in the other half, we have got a license to go and play football. We don’t just punt the ball into the box.

“I think it’s the throw-in that makes people think we’re long ball merchants and because we’ve got Dykes up front this season as well, his biggest attribute is running in behind and holding the ball up so we have got to use that to our advantage. I think you can ask a lot of teams in the league what they think Livingston are like to play against and I think a lot would say that we’re a lot better than we maybe get credit for.”

Part of the reason for Livingston’s continued success, Lawless stresses, is the work being done by the club’s recruitment department. Last summer, you could have been forgiven for assuming that Livi would regress after the spine of Holt’s side moved on to new clubs. The fact that they have not only survived but thrived, Lawless says, is testament to Holt’s ability to lure players to the club – as is the 47-year-old’s tactical nous.

Lawless said: “The recruitment we’ve had this year has been brilliant. We had lost a lot of good players which I thought would affect us a lot; Declan Gallagher, Halkett, Kelly, Shaun Byrne, Ryan Hardie. They were all big players for us last year.

“I don’t think we could have played the same shape and been as effective this year. The change of shape was implemented at the end of last year and we decided that we were going to try and go this way. The gaffer and Davie spoke to me about my numbers and they wanted a little bit more creativity from me and I said, ‘Look, if we’re going to go to this shape then you’ll get a lot more out of me’. I think the boys felt that as well.

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“We all done a job last season in that shape we were playing. It was based on our shape defensively and I think we’ve given boys a lot more license going forward this year.

“We made some great signings; Dykes was better than I thought he would have been for us, and we signed Nicky Devlin who I already knew from Motherwell. I knew what he could bring and I thought it would be ideal playing in front of him. He obviously got that bad injury but he was involved massively at the start.

“Marvin Bartley was massive for us and was another great signing – he brought that physicality that we would have been missing after losing the likes of Gallagher and Halkett and it just shows that the club know what they’re doing. They know who they want and they do a great job of selling people on the club. It’s going to be easier next year because of how far the club has come again this year.”

Lawless is convinced that Livingston will continue to go from strength to strength next season, whenever that may be. He says that the club’s meteoric rise in recent years – and remember, it was only in 2016 that the club were relegated to the third tier – shows that anything is possible. Perhaps even qualification for European competition.

“I don’t see why not. The rise they have had over the last few years is astounding,” he said. “Every year they’ve gradually got better.

“At the start of the season I was a little bit worried. The players we lost were massive for us; big, physical, very good players. We changed the shape without really changing the style of play and we’ve improved our position even more. We’ve got a lot more of the ball and we’ve played teams off the park whereas last year we were maybe getting results with our backs to the wall.

“I don’t see why Livi can’t go for Europe next year. It was within our reach this year and we didn’t get to finish the season but I think if they keep going the way they are, I don’t see why they can’t be going for Europe.”

Whether or not Lawless will be there to play his part in an unlikely tilt for European football remains to be seen. The 29-year-old’s contract is up this summer and given all the uncertainty engulfing Scottish football at the moment, he does not currently know where his future lies.

“My contract is up but with the current situation, nobody knows what’s happening,” he said. “Teams have been waiting to find out what’s happening from the SPFL, when the league is restarting and so on. Obviously that was a big palaver but that’s done now so teams can start working out budgets and seeing what they’re doing for next season. Hopefully I can go into talks soon.”