LED by the redoubtable Martin Canning, Hamilton’s defence had to withstand a late onslaught from St Johnstone to eventually secure the three points gained for them by an early Darian MacKinnon goal.
SCORERS: Hamilton, MacKinnon, 16
Played for a lot of the time in unseasonably dreich drizzle and a cold breeze, this mid-August match was a good advert for winter football as it was entertaining, full of attacking effort and no little skill.
The home side suffered a blow before kick-off when player/manager Alex Neil realised during the warm-up that his groin injury had not healed “and I wouldn’t be able to last the match”, as he said later, and replaced himself with Stephen Hendrie who was more than useful at left-back.
St Johnstone had captain Dave Mackay playing by virtue of the Perth club’s appeal – almost certain to be successful – against his dismissal during Wednesday night’s defeat by Celtic.
The visitors actually had more of the ball overall, but could do little with it until the second half, while Hamilton always looked the more likely to score, which they did after 16 minutes.
Both sides had started brightly, particularly the visitors, and Jesus Garcia Tena had to resort to fouling Steven MacLean, for which he was booked, before Hamilton’s target man Mikael Antoine-Curier pounced. The Guadeloupe internationalist drifted out to the right where he found enough space to weigh up a perfect pass infield to Darian MacKinnon whose low scuffed shot beat Alan Mannus down to his right. The late developer, a former junior, was scoring his first Premiership goal – “It’s amazing, brilliant, and one for my wee sister’s scrapbook about me,” said MacKinnon.
St Johnstone tried hard to make an impact, but Canning was the defensive rock on which so many of the visitors’ attacks foundered, while Grant Gillespie was excellent in the holding midfield role in front of the defence. As the half wore on, Hamilton began to exert control and after 27 minutes, only Mannus’s wonderful diving save stopped Ali Crawford’s goalbound shot.
Eight minutes later a superb block by Anderson stopped Hendrie from scoring with his low drive, Danny Redmond having put the left-back through with a sublime pass. A minute later, Antoine-Curier’s powerful shot went narrowly past.
St Johnstone came back and enjoyed spells of possession but they could do nothing in the final third, not even after the injured O’Halloran was replaced by Lee Croft, who made an impact.
Hamilton’s final move of the half may have ended with Ali Crawford blazing over, but the clever play that led up to his effort had the home fans in raptures. “It was a pleasure to watch from the sidelines,” said Alex Neil, and indeed it was.
Despite the visitors improving greatly, Hamilton were soon back looking for that vital second goal, with Antoine-Curier in the midst of every move.
All they had to show for it, however, was Dougie Imrie’s 59th-minute shot that was well held.
St Johnstone moved up a gear and the 66th minute almost saw an equaliser, Croft and Wotherspoon combining down the right with the latter’s low cross picking out MacLean, whose first-time effort cannoned off the bar with McGovern beaten. Then Wotherspoon’s right foot shot curled just past McGovern’s left-hand post.
Hamilton interrupted the blue flow when Canning’s header from a Crawford corner was booted off the line by MacLean, before substitute Tony Andreu fired in a fierce shot that Mannus failed to hold.
It was end-to-end stuff now, and only a timely interception by Canning stopped a certain goal by MacLean, seconds before Mackay’s header struck the outside of McGovern’s left upright.
Substitute Andy Ryan’s late effort whistled past the post as Hamilton again sought what would have been a certain winner, only for St Johnstone to get upfield in the dying seconds, the post denying MacLean’s shot before the striker appealed in vain for a penalty just seconds later, Garcia Tena’s arm hit by the ball.
St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright was convinced his side had been denied a clear penalty, but added: “The lesson has to be learned that if you don’t start playing until half-time you won’t win matches.”