THERE is a persistent narrative surrounding the Scottish Premiership play-off final which might lead you to believe only one of the participants is playing for genuinely high stakes.
But, while the consequences of relegation for the first time in 16 years for Hibs inevitably dominate the agenda, the significance for Hamilton Accies of trying to return to the top flight after a three-year absence cannot be underestimated.
For their player-manager Alex Neil, the outcome of tonight’s match at New Douglas Park and Sunday’s return fixture at Easter Road will have far-reaching implications.
Neil is enthused by the collective potential of his young squad but fears it may never be realised if they miss out on this opportunity to reach the Premiership, in the knowledge that promotion will be so much tougher to achieve next season when both Rangers and Hearts are in the Championship.
“We are not a big club and whether we could keep this squad together if we don’t go up remains to be seen,” said Neil.
“The finances are not as appealing in the Championship, but, if we do go up, it gives us extra money to keep the players we’ve got and bring in some more. If we don’t go up, then we’re going to have to sit down and see where we are in terms of finances, because it’s not going to be as good.
“For this young group of players, what they need is to go to the next stage, because they have shown they are right up there with the best in the Championship.
“It is important for their development. If you look at James McCarthy, James McArthur and Brian Easton, who were young players with us the last time we were in the top flight, they have all gone on to bigger and better things.
“If you stay at the one level, you reach a plateau in your development. So you need the next level to go and test yourself again. It is vital for this squad to go up and be asked, ‘Can you cope?’ and ‘Are you good enough to perform every week at the top level’?
“With Hearts and Rangers in the Championship next season, this is definitely our best chance to come up. We looked at it that way when we were trying to win the league and we were really unfortunate to lose out to Dundee in the end.
“But I’m not thinking negatively about missing out. The opportunity to go up, which we still have, drives me on. The profile our players will have in the Premiership would be fantastic and they would get an opportunity to express their talents on a bigger stage. That’s all I want for them, to show everybody what they are capable of. If they’re good enough, we’ll try to move them on and let them have better careers and more money.
“The players who have done if before are great examples for our current youngsters. It’s like going to Dunblane and talking about Andy Murray – when you’ve got great role models, like James McCarthy, who has moved for over £10 million in the
English Premier League, then it is inspirational. If someone from Castlemilk can do it, why can’t they?”
Neil, who was the captain of Accies’ last promotion-winning side in 2008, believes his team remain big outsiders against Hibs, despite the poor form and fragile confidence of Terry Butcher’s men. But he accepts that positive momentum is very much in Hamilton’s favour.
“That’s plain for everyone to see,” he added. “It’s always difficult when you’re not winning games. The momentum is with us, but we are not favourites. Hibs are a huge club with Premiership players on vast amounts of money compared to what our boys are earning.
“Hibs are certainly favourites but we are confident that, if we can put them on the back foot from the start on Wednesday night, we can do well. We want to take an advantage to Easter Road, or at least go there on level pegging.
“We will take the game to Hibs. I watched their last game, against Kilmarnock, and Hibs were the better side until Kris Boyd scored for Killie, then you could see the confidence drain away from their team and their fans.
“That’s how we want to go about our business – we want to grab an early goal and see how they react when they go behind. That’s our game plan, to get at them and see how it pans out.”
While Neil believes a one-off final at a neutral venue would represent a fairer play-off format, he is hopeful Hamilton can make the most of their own synthetic playing surface tonight.
“It gives us an advantage that Hibs don’t play on that kind of surface at all in the Premiership,” he said. “We’ve played on it all season and we are good at home. Any advantage we can get, we’ll try and take. The home game is crucial for us. If we can go to Hibs with a lead, it will be great for us.”
Neil has a fully-fit squad to choose from and the 32-year-old midfielder’s only dilemma is whether to restore himself to the starting line-up after completing a three-match suspension.
“I know what my best team is,” he said. “But it varies, depending on the opposition and what their weaknesses are. Am I in my best team? You’ll have to wait and see. I’m capable of doing a job for the team but I will pick the team which has the best chance of beating Hibs.”