HAMILTON ended Hibernian’s 15-year stay in the Scottish Premiership with a dramatic 4-3 penalty shoot-out victory in the play-off final second leg at Easter Road.
Scorers: Hamilton - Scotland (13), Andreau (90) - Hamilton won 4-3 on penalties
There is little more you can ask for in a two-leg tie than a 2-0 lead after the first match with the home leg still to come. Hibernian had that, and they had the advantage of a ten-day rest while Hamilton Accies were involved in their Premiership play-off final against Falkirk.
In fact, Hibs had an advantage of sorts all the way to the end of this extraordinary contest, when a toss of the coin meant that the penalty shoot-out to decide who would play in the top flight next season took place in front of the Famous Five Stand, at the opposite end to the small but vociferous visiting support. Yet somehow, despite so many factors being in their favour, they contrived to lose that shoot-out, and with it their place in the top division for the first time since 1999.
Hamilton deserve massive credit for the way in which they fought back from that 2-0 deficit, and thoroughly merited their victory. They grabbed an early goal through Jason Scotland to set Hibs’ nerves jangling, and then they held their own nerve to secure a stoppage-time equaliser through Anthony Andreu.
Several Accies players were out on their feet in extra time, a consequence of the effort they had put in on a pitch which had become increasingly energy sapping as a result of sustained heavy showers. But they still had enough to last out the half-hour and take the game into the shoot-out – and then they had the courage to score all four of the penalties required to win.
Hamilton manager Alex Neil had said after the first leg that his team had little alternative but to attack from the kick-off, although the clear danger was that by going too gung-ho too early, they would leave themselves exposed at the back. In the event, both teams began cautiously, and it took five minutes before either made even a tentative attempt at goal.
It was Hibs who made it, through Jason Cummings, their two-goal hero from midweek. The teenager, playing on the left of midfield, embarked on a promising run, but no sooner had he unleashed a shot than it was blocked by Jon Routledge.
Danny Haynes, a replacement for Alex Harris in the only change made by Terry Butcher from his midweek starting line-up, had gone down injured following a challenge with Routledge just before that attempt, and had to be helped off the pitch with a leg injury. Harris replaced him.
Just as the match appeared to have been becalmed, it burst into life thanks to Scotland. The Hibs fans had been singing that Scotland was so heavy it would take several men to carry him – a reprise of their old ditty about Christian Nade – but no matter if the striker is a touch slower these days, he proved too fast for the Hibs defence.
Routledge began the move by intercepting a Ryan McGivern clearance and passing straight to Ali Crawford. Crawford’s pass forward cut out McGivern and found Scotland on the edge of the box. The former Dundee United man still had a lot to do, but he did it in style, coolly turning Michael Nelson as the centre-half rushed in, and then sending a low shot past Ben Williams from just inside the box.
Two minutes after that goal, Paul Heffernan had the ball in the net for Hibs, but only some time after the flag had gone up for offside. It was an encouraging indication to Hibs that they could get behind the Accies defence, and they continued to play positively for a time, even though efforts on goal by Scott Robertson and Heffernan constituted no real danger.
But once they had settled on their lead, Hamilton began to play confident, creative football, while Hibs increasingly displayed signs of their old nervousness.
With 20 minutes played, Williams stuck out a foot to save a Louis Longridge shot, then some ten minutes later, Ziggy Gordon headed over from a Darian MacKinnon cross. Despite wasting some possession, Hibs were still capable of mounting threatening attacks, and they came close to scoring five minutes from half-time. A Liam Craig corner from the left was met at the back post by the head of Cummings, but Grant Gillespie was in place to clear off the line.
Right on half-time, Accies had the chance to level the tie on aggregate, but Andreu shot into the side-netting from a tight angle at the back post after a deep cross from the left. With a goal still needed to take the play-off into extra time, Hamilton began the second half in the same positive way that they had ended the first, and, within minutes, Williams had to get off his line sharply to save at the feet of Scotland.
Hibs began to play more assertively after that escape, and for a time dominated territory. But they continued to live dangerously, never more so than when McGivern won the ball in a crucial tackle on Scotland after a through pass from Garcia. Contact was made and, if Willie Collum had deemed it a foul, McGivern might well have been shown the red card. As it was, the referee allowed play to continue.
As the game entered its last quarter, Mickael Antoine-Curier came on for Hamilton, to be followed by Kevin Thomson for Hibs – the latter to the delight of the bulk of the home support. Both teams had half-chances in the last ten minutes of normal time, and then, in the third of the four minutes of stoppage time, Accies equalised.
They seemed to have been playing too patiently, but eventually they worked the ball into a good position. Scotland got the ball on the byeline and cut back to Andreu. He still had a lot to do and a lot of bodies in front of him, but his shot managed to find the right corner of the net.
In the first period of extra time, Accies substitute Andy Ryan was booked for simulation after going down in the box, when on another day he could have been awarded a penalty. In the second quarter-hour, a McGivern shot was goalbound until it rebounded off Cummings and eventually to safety.
Hibs got off to the worst possible start in the shoot-out when Kevin Cuthbert saved Thomson’s spot-kick. The next seven penalties were all scored to make the tally 4-3 to Accies, leaving Cummings needing to score to keep Hibs in it. But again, Cuthbert pulled off a stunning save to win the match – and with it an invaluable place in the Premiership.
Darian MacKinnon (Hamilton)
The midfielder, a non-league journeyman until a couple of years ago, exemplified the tenacity, self-belief and no little skill that made his team deserved winners. Reduced to walking pace by the end as a result of the effort expended, he seems set to be a major asset to Accies in the Premiership.
Hibs: Williams, Maybury, Nelson, McGivern, Stevenson, Robertson, Craig, Haynes (Harris 6, Thomson 68), Stanton, Heffernan (Jones 84), Cummings. Subs not used: Murdoch, Cairney, Collins, Forster.
Hamilton: Cuthbert, Gordon, Canning, Gillespie, Routledge (Neil 82), Crawford (Ryan 82), Longridge (Antoine-Curier 67), MacKinnon, Andreu, Garcia, Scotland. Subs not used: Currie, Devlin, Keatings, Kilday.
Referee: W Collum