LIFE after Alex Neil began in agonising fashion for Hamilton Accies as they suffered a first home defeat since the opening day of the Scottish Premiership season.
Hamilton Accies - 2
Tena (57), Crawford (70)
Dundee United - 3
Armstrong (38), Mackay-Steven (46), Dillon (77)
Referee: B Madden
Sean Dillon headed a winner for Dundee United with 13 minutes remaining of a contest which, after a slow-burning start, developed into something of a thriller. Accies’ courage in fighting back from a 2-0 deficit proved in vain when Dillon struck to propel United into third place in the table, five points behind leaders Aberdeen and just one point adrift of champions Celtic.
While Jackie McNamara’s side provided a reminder they too may yet have a serious interest in the title race, it was a tough first match in charge of Hamilton for interim player-boss Martin Canning.
The level of affection and gratitude towards Neil from the Accies support was displayed in the opening minutes as the spontaneous chanting of his name by a section of the home fans was quickly taken up by the rest, extending into a lengthy burst of applause.
As Canning began his efforts to maintain the remarkable standards set by the former manager, he opted to name himself among the substitutes, replacing himself in central defence with Jesus Garcia Tena.
Canning’s early view from the technical area was reasonably encouraging, as he saw Hamilton threaten first. Ali Crawford’s corner from the right picked out the unmarked Tena and the big Spaniard might have done better than head over from close range.
McNamara made three changes from United’s 2-2 draw at Partick Thistle last time out, bringing in the youthful trio of Blair Spittal, Charlie Telfer and Aidan Connolly at the expense of Keith Watson, John Rankin and Chris Erskine.
It was Telfer who created the visitors’ first opening of the night, showing fine technique and awareness to pick out Nadir Ciftci with a cleverly angled through ball in the seventh minute. The Turkish striker was unable to match the quality of the pass with his finish as he blazed his shot wildly off target.
But both sides struggled to establish any sustained levels of first half ascendancy, the early skirmishes developing into a stalemate which was largely contained to the battle for midfield control. United generally looked more fluid and menacing during their periods of possession but lacked precision in and around the Accies penalty area.
Hamilton looked capable of troubling United’s defence on the counter-attack and overlapping left-back Stephen Hendrie was unable to take advantage of one such raid, slicing his shot wide after being picked out by Darian MacKinnon’s smart pass.
McNamara’s men gradually began to impose themselves with greater conviction, the pace and movement of their attacking players stretching the home defence. Connolly wastefully spurned a promising situation when he fired wide from a difficult angle when a cutback to the unmarked Ciftci was by far the better option.
But it was the start of a spell which led to United’s breakthrough. Telfer was next to try his luck, drilling a low shot not far wide of Michael McGovern’s right-hand post after latching on to Stuart Armstrong’s lay-off in the 36th minute.
Two minutes later, United went in front. Armstrong received the ball around 25 yards out and steadied himself before guiding the sweetest of right foot strikes beyond McGovern’s right hand into the corner of the net.
Accies were upset by an errant offside flag against Dougie Imrie, curtailing a move which ended with Crawford crashing the ball into the roof of the net, as they tried to hit back immediately. But United just about merited their half-time lead.
They doubled that advantage just 21 seconds after the restart. Hamilton’s defence were caught cold by Armstrong’s piercing pass which picked out the run of Mackay-Steven who calmly beat McGovern with a firm and low right foot shot from around 14 yards.
It was a real body blow for Accies, who had been forced to replace the ill Hendrie with Louis Longridge at half-time, and they could easily have found themselves 3-0 down had Ciftci not miscued woefully from close range after being set up by Mackay-Steven.
But Hamilton pulled themselves firmly back into contention with a magnificent set-piece goal in the 57th minute. Calum Butcher conceded the free-kick with a trip on Tony Andreu around 20 yards out. Tena stepped up to curl a left foot shot over the defensive wall and beyond Radoslaw Cierzniak’s left hand into the top corner.
The goal transformed Accies, injecting fresh energy and belief into their play while United suddenly looked far less sure of themselves. The home team’s 70th-minute equaliser cashed in on that uncertainty. Andreu’s pass found Crawford and after his initial shot was blocked by the advancing Cierzniak, he hooked the loose ball over the stranded goalkeeper.
Hamilton suddenly appeared the far likelier to find a winning goal but they were stunned when United showed great resilience to squeeze back in front eight minutes later. It was the simplest of goals, substitute Erskine’s corner from the right headed home from a couple of yards at the back post by Dillon.
Hamilton: McGovern, Gillespie, Devlin, Tena (Canning 88), Hendrie (Longridge 46); Routledge (Brophy 84), MacKinnon; Imrie, Andreu, Crawford; Curier. Subs not used: Hill, Watson, Docherty, Redmond.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Spittal, Dillon, Fojut, Townsend; Telfer (Paton 80), Butcher; Armstrong, Connolly (Erskine 71), Mackay-Steven;. Ciftci. Subs not used: Szromnik, Watson, Rankin, Dow, Coote.