THE last time Hamilton came up against a promotion rival the result seemed to suggest an impending death of their title challenge.
SCORERS: Hamilton - Scotland 4, MacKinnon 74, Longridge 90; Falkirk - Beck 71
Five weeks later, this deserved 3-1 win over Falkirk extends their unbeaten run to five games and they remained tied with Dundee at the top of the Championship table.
Jason Scotland’s early goal set them on their way and the only disappointing aspect of a comfortable first-half performance was that they didn’t double the advantage. That wastefulness briefly looked like coming back to haunt them when Mark Beck headed Falkirk back on level terms, but the hosts were back in front soon after through Darian MacKinnon before Louis Longridge made sure of the points in injury time.
Manager Alex Neil was delighted to see his players rise to the challenge in a way they didn’t in a dismal 1-0 defeat at Dens Park in February.
“Before the match we reminded the players of the match with Dundee,” revealed Neil. “We came up a bit short and really didn’t do ourselves justice. We were really disappointed with that. So I said to the players today that this game was even bigger because of the stage we are at in the season. You need to win these big games and I’m delighted to get the three points. I thought we were worthy winners.”
A big reason for Accies’ revival has been the form of January signing Scotland, with “big” being the operative word. The veteran striker demonstrates incredible strength and balance at this level and is almost never shrugged off the ball by a opposing defender, using those attributes to win the home side an early corner from which he would score. The Trinidadian eased Jonathan Flynn off the ball before getting himself into the penalty area for the resultant set-piece and being in the right place to divert Martin Canning’s header into the back of the net.
The former St Johnstone and Dundee United striker was central to every Hamilton attack in the first half and should have given his side a comfortable advantage just before the break. Ali Crawford fed through James Keatings on the left and the former Celtic striker found Scotland streaking into the box at the back post. He then got caught in two minds over how to dispatch the opportunity and succeeded only in bundling the ball directly out of play.
Falkirk had not threatened in the first half but they gradually managed to pull themselves into it after the break. Twice in the space of four minutes they slung free-kick deliveries into the penalty area and saw Beck rise highest to head towards goal, with one being arrowed straight at the goalkeeper and another drifting over the bar. These were warnings to Hamilton that, despite their superiority, Falkirk were still in with a chance. Warnings the hosts would fail to recognise.
On 71 minutes a quick free-kick by Ollie Durojaiye found Will Vaulks in space on the right and the defender sent in a glorious cross into the penalty area. Once again it was Beck on the end of it and he planted a superb header past Kevin Cuthbert and into the bottom corner.
If Hamilton had failed to recognise an earlier harbinger then the same can be said of Falkirk. Three minutes after equalising they were behind once more, and again the goal came via a corner. MacKinnon managed to have two bites at the cherry in the crowded penalty area before dispatching his shot into the far corner.
“I thought we coped,” said manager Gary Holt, “but it doesn’t matter how well you play or how well they done when two set plays cost you. That’s criminal. They know that, but that’s what you have to accept with a young squad sometimes.”
Forced to take off Rory Loy and Blair Alston, both clearly not at peak fitness, Falkirk never looked like finding that second equaliser. Instead it was Hamilton who found the third goal in stoppage time. Keatings’s drilled shot from the left was well parried by Michael McGovern, but Longridge was on hand to nod the ball into the far corner.