A SEMBLANCE of normality has been restored to Scottish football with this defeat, at last, for the league leaders, but not so much that Hamilton have been removed from their unlikely perch at the top of the Premiership.
At Dens Park yesterday, the Lanarkshire side lost for the first time in 12 matches. They also conceded their first goal in 594 minutes, 473 in the league, but they are still looking down on the rest thanks to results elsewhere.
They were a tad unlucky to leave Tayside with nothing, having dominated the first half, and passed up a handful of scoring opportunities, but two second-half goals – by David Clarkson and Greg Stewart – brought their fairytale run to a halt.
It was a sweet one for Dundee, who developed quite a rivalry with Hamilton last season, when both contested the Championship title race. Gary Harkins, who set up both goals, cupped his ears at the travelling support after the first of them. Stewart was then booked for a gesture made to them during his celebration.
Paul Hartley was delighted with his team’s first home win in the league this season. “We did to Hamilton what they do to a lot of teams and worked hard and pressed the ball,” said the Dundee manager, whose side are seventh in the table after the first round of fixtures.
The last time these teams played each other was in April, when they were both in the Championship, providing Scotland’s second tier with its match of the day. Neither of them could possibly have envisaged that, just six months later, they would have the same billing in the Premiership.
While Dundee have adapted comfortably to the top flight, Hamilton’s has been the bigger achievement, not just because they are league leaders, but because they have scaled those heights with the same squad as last year. It is, for that matter, the same squad that were promoted via the play-offs, and failed to beat Dundee even once last season.
Dundee, on the other hand, went up as champions, and have made wholesale changes to their staff, which has perhaps complicated the transition. “We’ve had a massive turnaround in players,” said Hartley. “We had to build a complete new squad of 15 players. People forget that. We’re trying to gel them as quickly as possible. The effort the players have put in has been first class. If we can keep getting 16 points every quarter, we’ll be OK.”
For long spells of this one, they were up against it. In a one-sided first half, the visitors were solid, slick going forward and unfortunate not to be at least a goal up at the interval. From the moment Scott Bain, deputising for the injured Kyle Letheren, blocked Mikael Antoine Curier’s early shot with a strong right hand, Dundee had their work cut out.
Several times more in that opening period, Hamilton should have scored. Ali Crawford’s intelligent pass set up Tony Andreu, but the shot was scuffed wide. Then, when Bain lost himself under Crawford’s free kick, Michael Devlin rose at the back post to find only the side-net. Another frustrated Accie was Dougie Imrie whose low shot came back off the goalkeeper after a loose ball had not been cleared.
The irony was that Dundee’s one and only chance of the first half was arguably its best. When Stewart was presented with the ball at the back post, he could have converted, or he could have teed up Harkins for a tap-in, but he contrived to do neither with a moment of hesitation that served only to get his legs in a tangle.
In the second half, Dundee had the wind at their back, which was perhaps the encouragement they needed. A succession of corners stretched the Hamilton defence, but it was still a surprise when they used one of them to take the lead. Harkins provided the cross, Clarkson the header, high into the Hamilton net.
For the visitors, hitherto in control of the match, it was a morale-testing blow. Not long before the goal was scored, they had been angry with the referee’s failure to award a penalty when Paul McGinn brought down Daniel Redmond. Instead, it was a free kick, taken by Antoine-Curier, saved by Bain.
Still, here they were, behind for the first time since early September, which perhaps explains their startled response. After five more minutes, they were two down, and all but out. Harkins was again the architect, heading into the path of Stewart, who lashed it past the goalkeeper with his left foot.
It is a rare disappointment for Hamilton, who still have plenty to be positive about. By holding out for 68 minutes, Michael McGovern beat a shutout record previously held by Tomas Cerny. And Alex Neil, their manager, has a League Cup quarter-final against Aberdeen to look forward to on Wednesday night.
“I don’t think we deserved to lose the game,” he said. “I would be more concerned if they outplayed us. We are not too disheartened.”