Hamilton’s opening 0-0 draw at home to Partick Thistle didn’t reveal much about whether or not Hamilton deserve their relegation favourites tag. Craig Cairns evaluates the mixture of youth, lower league experience and foreign unknowns at New Douglas Park.
Alex Neil’s rise from rookie Scottish Championship manager to English Premiership manager in a matter of two years is one of the most successful, short-term success stories in Scottish football. However much it did contribute, Hamilton were unable to find a win for almost four months afterwards and dropped from just behind Celtic and Aberdeen in third and into the bottom half of the table. Prior to this, they led the league at one point in October after winning at Celtic Park for the first time since 1938.
After losing their first match last season at home to St Johnstone, Hamilton embarked on a run of nine league matches without defeat – 11 in all competitions, ending with a 3-0 victory over Aberdeen at New Douglas Park. A difficult run of results ensued but Neil more than arrested their descent, winning five of seven league matches before leaving for Norwich. Tony Andreu followed, also leaving Accies short of their top scorer and main creative spark. Martin Canning was promoted to replace Neil as manager.
Most expected an eventual drop off, even under Neil, although it is difficult to speculate how much this would have resembled their actual descent had he remained. If the second half of last season told us anything, it is that Canning faces a very tough task in his first full season in charge.
Hamilton have dipped into the Scottish lower league market, as well as adding a few exotic names from around Europe to compliment their abundance of youth.
The burly Christian Nadé joins from Raith Rovers after his seven goals last season. We know what he is capable of and we are aware of his shortcomings. He performed well previously during Dundee’s promotion push, scoring in the match that sealed the title, though struggled at points with Raith last season. He fits the mould of a Hamilton striker but you feel that if Hamilton struggle, he will struggle rather than be some sort of talismanic figure.
Joining Nadé from the lower leagues is Alan Martin who has been added from Clyde to provide competition for Michael McGovern, while Northern Ireland midfielder Chris Turner has signed after three successful seasons with Dumbarton, adding more steel in the centre of the park.
It is Hamilton’s other signings that may be their wild card. Latvian international left-back Antons Kurakins has joined from Ventspils, while Kosovan-born, German midfielder Gramoz Kurtaj joins from Czech side Banik Most.
Finally, Alex Neil is doing his old club a favour once more by sending the highly-rated Carlton Morris on loan for the season. Morris is tall, good with his back to goal and likes to drop to link play. The cancellation of Salva Chamorro’s contract may mean that Morris is given more opportunities at New Douglas Park this season.
Hamilton’s succession policy has, no doubt, worked so far. Billy Reid’s departure saw Neil, then under 20s manager, step in to replace him and the same has now happened to Canning. This has come sooner than he and the club expected, however. The early evidence is that this job may have come too soon for Canning but, if his signings prove to be as good as good as their YouTube clips suggest (see below), there is still enough quality already within the squad to steer them towards another successful season.
It is difficult to ignore, however, that Alex Neil recorded 1.95 points-per-game across his 20 while Canning – with largely the same squad – has managed 1.26 his 19 matches. One shining light for Canning may be that his side lost only one of their five matches after the split. When the pressure was off, Hamilton picked up a few results. They go into this season with the pressure relieved once more and with some potentially exciting new recruits thrown in.
Much will also depend on getting the defence sorted out. Hamilton conceded 19 goals in Neil’s 20 games in charge, gaining 11 clean sheets in the process. Canning, has since oversaw the side concede 34 in 19 matches, with just five clean sheets. Encouragingly, one of those came in Saturday’s match. Jesús García Tena and Michael Devlin both showed their ability in spells last season and Lucas de Lima Tagliapietra looked an imposing figure in his performance in Dingwall at the end of last season.
Getting Ziggy Gordon back to full match sharpness is crucial. Gordon, like the rest of the side, began last season spectacularly but then found himself in and out of the side due to injury. Hamilton struggled to replace his quality at right back, which is evidenced in the fact that 13 of the 32 goals conceded under Canning have been conceded from crosses, eight of them down their right-hand side.
Ali Crawford netted 11 league goals last season and has been involved in 10 of the 14 league goals since the departure of Neil, showing he is still an integral part to the way Hamilton attack. His goals under Canning were worth a total of 12 points and prevented them from sliding further down the table.
The 23-year-old is an intelligent, creative attacking midfielder who arrives late in the box to score goals, but who also likes to link with teammates around the edge of the box. In the absence of Andreu, Crawford will now look to link up with new recruit Kurtaj in midfield. How well Crawford links with him and the new strikers will go a long way to determining how successful Accies will be this season.
Making the unknowns known at New Douglas Park
This section was 25% larger until the club cancelled the contract of Salva Chamorro. Nonetheless, here is a short introduction to Hamilton’s three new recruits from outside Scottish football.
1. Antons Kurakins
The full-back has three international caps and was formerly a youth player at Celtic. In that time he has spells on loan at Brechin and Stranraer. Thus, he is not completely unfamiliar with Scottish football, even though much of it may be unfamiliar with him. Kurakins, now 25-years-old, is skilful and athletic, is comfortable using both feet and likes to get forward. He may just be one of the surprise packages of the season.
2. Gramoz Kurtaj
The Kosovan-born, German attacking midfielder is another who appears to possess good technical ability. He is creative, likes to run at opposition defences with the ball and will look to link up with Ali Crawford in midfield, replacing the void left by Andreu.
3. Carlton Morris
Singed on loan from Norwich, Morris comes with a glowing recommendation from former boss Alex Neil after impressing in the U21s. He’s tall, appears to want to drop and link play and is comfortable with his back to goal.
We don’t think Hamilton are certainties for relegation by any means, and this pick does look a little foolish having been made before Kilmarnock’s capitulation on opening day, but looking at the league as a whole it’s difficult to pick anyone else. Goals will really be a problem this campaign and there’s still a big question mark around Martin Canning’s ability to manage.