During a first day win at Raith Rovers the travelling Accies fans sang “we’re going to win the league”. Impressive though they were that day, it was a chant attempting humour rather than conveying any genuine expectation that Hamilton would challenge for a title. They had been poor the previous campaign and fans shuddered to think where they might have ended up had they not secured Stevie May on loan, with the St Johnstone loanee scoring at will in the latter half of that campaign. Under the permanent tutelage of Alex Neil it was expected that the players would improve. The extent to which they did surprised everybody at the club.
Hamilton overcame a campaign that could split into three. There was the all-conquering side who jumped out to a seven point lead at the top of the table. Even Hamilton fans were pessimistic that they enjoyed such a superiority over the opposing and, sure enough, they soon came back down to earth, suffering a barren stretch through the middle third where they dropped behind Dundee and Falkirk and looked ready to fall out of the title race. That poor spell had been proceeded by injuries to James Keatings and Mikael Antonie Curier, briefly robbing the squad of its strike options. Once they’d return the momentum had gone and belief among the players was considerably lower.
Things picked back up again once Jason Scotland joined at the end of January. The veteran striker didn’t have the same mobility he once he enjoyed, but he was, without doubt, one of the strongest players left in the country and his target man qualities helped lift the rest of the team back up once more. In the end they couldn’t quite take the title, blowing their best chance with a 4-1 defeat at Dumbarton on the penultimate weekend of the season, although they did almost create the most sensational title climax ever by thumping Morton 10-2, putting them within a Dumbarton goal of nicking the league from right under Dundee’s noses. Instead, they made do with another sensational comeback: overhauling a 2-0 deficit after the home leg of their playoff with Hibs to force extra time before winning promotion on penalties.
If they stay up they’ll have to do so repeating Partick Thistle’s formula of relying on the players that got them there, because none of their new signings is a proven Premiership player in their current form.
In signing Dougie Imrie and Daniel Redmond they’ve added competition for places in the midfield with two players the club are familiar with from previous spells at New Douglas Park. Even then it’s not like they’re bringing back James McArthur. Imrie starred on the Accies team that was relegated, and while Redmond was a good player it was at a time when they toiled around mid-table in the Championship.
Michael McGovern is a strong signing. The former Falkirk stopper has been arguably the best goalkeeper in the second tier for the last two seasons and should have been playing at this level much sooner. He is backed up by Darren Hill, a veteran stopper who surprisingly jumped up two levels after being a bit questionable at Forfar. There’s also intrigue around the signing of Kieran MacDonald. The young defender arrives in the top flight having been the best left-back in League Two the prior season. Andy Robertson parallels are obvious, but it remains to be seen whether MacDonald has the ability to make anywhere near the kind of impact.
For the meantime that’s the extent of Hamilton’s dealings. The silver lining is that James Keatings is the only first team player to have left, and even then he was becoming marginalised as the season drew to a close. It’s night and day compared with the way in which Paul Hartley has gone about deconstructing fellow promotion winners Dundee. Time will tell which approach is more effective.
An injury sustained before Christmas put player manager Alex Neil out of action for many months, during which Hamilton struggled to sustain the strong start without their leader solidifying the team in the defensive midfielder role. Once they found a new identity, Neil was somewhat of an afterthought and it even came as a surprise to see him playing in the second leg against Hibs, since the team were beginning to look better without him. How often he players in the top flight will depend on whether they continue to flourish with him focusing solely on his sideline duties.
Neil has demonstrated some tactical variance and flexibility, never afraid to change systems or styles during games and even reinventing the team from a stuffy ‘hard to beat’ unit into free-scoring adventurers at various points throughout the campaign. It’s the reason why they’ve overachieved to such an extent and why unfancied players like Martin Canning, Darian MacKinnon and Louis Longridge will now be regular Premiership starters.
Hopefully Neil can continue to work such wonders and at least keep Hamilton competitive this season, because there’s few things more unfair in football than a manager exceeding expectations and then being sacked when the success cannot be continued at a higher level.
There’s plenty to pick from, but the player who probably sums up Hamilton’s surprising rise is midfielder Darian MacKinnon. The 28-year old midfielder had played in the juniors his entire adult career and was considered a striker for the most part. Then Billy Reid brought him to Hamilton two summers ago and turned him into a midfielder. The effect wasn’t immediate but last year saw the fruits of those seeds being laid, with MacKinnon becoming one of the best midfielders outside the top flight. His style is the old fashioned British combatant in the football trenches: tough, energetic and seemingly willing to put himself on the line for the team. The late start in his career makes him an inspiration for any prospective footballer still slogging away at a lower level. If he can make a success of himself in the top flight then the rest of his teammates could well follow suit.
What can be done for them to stay up?
They’ll need to make the transition seamlessly and they’ll need to stay relatively healthy since it’s hard to imagine many of their fringe players being able to cut it at this level.
There is quality in the team. Scotland showed that despite his age he can be a very effective player with incredible strength and balance complementing a soft touch, even though his mobility isn’t once what it was. Anthony Andreu is the one player with a bit of extra quality who could really take the league, or at least the bottom six, by storm. Louis Longridge is incredibly inconsistent but can be a match winner on his day, while Ziggy Gordon could already be one of the top flight’s best full-backs.
If these guys can make the step up then Neil can concentrate on making the team hard to beat. Hibs fans will scoff at the thought of Martin Canning returning to this level, but the veteran defender plays a huge role as the experienced leader in an otherwise young unit. If Neil stations himself in front of his captain (and the rest of the back four) then Hamilton could make themselves a tough nut to crack, enabling them to pick up cheap points that could be the difference between staying up and going down.
Last season’s Championship title race was enthralling, but there’s doubts over how strong the teams were. Paul Hartley has certainly made such an observation. The first thing the Dundee manager did was rip up the entire team. Hamilton don’t have the resources to comfortably make such wholesale changes and are sticking with the core of their promotion winning squad. With so few teams capable of commanding regular attendances of over 5,000, Hamilton have a chance at the league’s smallest team to cause some upsets and safely avoid relegation. But they will have to ask overrating players to multiply those efforts further, which could just be too much to ask. Expect them to fight to the death but don’t be surprised at an immediate return.
Finish: 12th place