Hamilton boss Alex Neil today urged his players not to blow their second chance of promotion after earning themselves a play-off showdown with Hibs for a place in the Scottish Premiership.
Neil’s side were left devastated after missing out on the Championship title despite clocking up a club record win of 10-2 against Morton on the final day of the season, the damage done seven days earlier when they lost to Ian Murray’s Dumbarton.
However, Accies have picked themselves off the canvas to squeeze past Falkirk yesterday, winning 1-0 on the day and 2-1 on aggregate, to set up a double-header against the Capital club.
“We were a bit aggrieved we did not win the league. Our motivation has been that we blew that opportunity, but we have a second bite at the cherry and you don’t want that to pass you by twice,” said Neil as he looked forward to welcoming Hibs to South Lanarkshire on Wednesday before heading east to face the Easter Road club in the return leg on Sunday.
Hibs boss Terry Butcher and scout John Brownlie, having taken in the first leg, were on hand again to see Tony Andreu score the decisive goal, the former Livingston midfielder left with the easy task of tapping the ball into the net after team-mate Jason Scotland had capitalised on Bairns defender David McCracken’s mistake on his own bye-line.
“It wasn’t my best goal,” admitted Andreu, who took his tally for the season to 14, before adding: “But it was the most important.”
That was something of an understatement given the prize, Andreu, his team-mates and Neil himself all exuding the sort of quiet air of confidence borne from a run which has seen them lose just once in their last 15 matches in stark contrast to Hibs, who have won only one of their last 19 matches.
As such, it leaves Hamilton in a strange position. They are under-dogs given they are the Championship side, but favourites in the eyes of many given Hibs’ downward spiral. Adding weight to that argument is the fact Hibs have scored just three goals in their last ten games, while Accies have spread them around to such an extent that Neil felt comfortable in leaving both Mikael Antoine-Curier and James Keatings, who had scored 28 between them, on the bench.
Andreu’s 15th-minute strike settled any nerves the home side might have had, although Neil would no doubt have felt that with Louis Longridge running the left-hand side of Falkirk’s defence ragged that Accies should have, as in the first leg, had the match wrapped up by half-time.
McCracken made up somewhat for his blunder with a superb block as Longridge threatened to double Hamilton’s lead, although Neil’s side had goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert to thank for a superb stop, pushing away Mark Beck’s header.
And it was Cuthbert who was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers early in the second half, helped initially by Ziggy Gordon, who took Rory Loy’s lofted effort off his own line, before the keeper diverted Will Vaulks’ stunning volley wide and then pushed Conor McGrandles’ effort aside.
Bairns boss Gary Holt said: “I said to them at half-time we were looking at each other waiting for someone to do something. We had to get on the ball and play the way we do day in, day out, that we shouldn’t leave anything in the dressing-room.”
As the game wore on, Falkirk were forced to take greater risks as they sought that goal to push the tie into extra-time at least and had to live on a knife-edge on more than one occasion.
Accies substitute Andy Ryan passed up a glorious chance to put it beyond the Bairns when left with only Michael McGovern to beat, but he pulled his shot horribly wide and then could only watch in anguish as McGovern beat away another effort and, in the dying seconds of the game, Stephen Kingsley somehow managed to get back onto his own line to head away Keatings’ netbound shot, allowing Accies to breathe easy and begin to look forward to pitting their wits against Hibs.
Despite all the Easter Road side’s troubles, Accies were at pains to give their opponents due respect. “They are a Premiership side, they can score in any game because they are very good players,” said Andreu. “But it is in our hands. If we are good we can beat them, I’m sure of that.”
And Neil, who will decide whether or not he should return himself to his team after suspension, added: “Over the piece I think we deserved a crack at Hibs. We have been playing well, scoring goals and we fancy our chances against anyone if we play well.
“All I can do is ask we do our best. We have a few match reports on Hibs. I’ve seen them myself, but we have to deliver on the day.
Now a neutral, Holt gave his opinion of what lies ahead, saying: “Accies have momentum, they have that winning feeling that Hibs do not have and it will be a couple of difficult game for Hibs, who are fighting for their lives trying to stay in it.”
Hamilton: Cuthbert, Gordon, Canning, Gillespie, Routledge, Crawford (Ryan 67), Longridge (Keatings 90), MacKinnon, Andreu, Garcia Tena, Scotland (Antoine-Curier 68). Subs not used: Currie, Devlin, Kilday.
Falkirk: McGovern, Vaulks, Flynn, McCracken (Leahy 82), Kingsley, McGrandles, Alston (Shepherd 66), Millar, Sibbald, Loy, Beck. Subs not used: Bowman, Durojaiye, Dick, Rowan, Bia-Bi.
Referee: Kevin Clancy.