IT is probably as well for Hamilton Academical that they are off the top of the league, for it was a misleading position that placed unreasonable expectation on their callow shoulders.
A scoreless draw with Kilmarnock at New Douglas Park yesterday in no way spoiled their spectacular start to the season, but it did serve as a reminder of their limitations.
They do not have the resources to keep themselves in the upper reaches of the Premiership, never mind pole position, which is why Alex Neil, their player-manager, was just delighted that his team, hampered by injury and suspension, had extended their unbeaten run to seven matches.
Martin Canning, Jesus Garcia Tena and Mickael Antoine Curier were all missing, together with
Darian McKinnon, who was starting a four-match ban. Neil, who had not played for a month, lasted only an hour. Jason Scotland and Dougie Imrie were also substituted .
“Seven or eight of our most experienced players were out of the game,” said Neil.
“I was happy with a point. I was happy with the performance of the players. They had a lot of adapting to do. If you look at the team that finished the game, it was as young as we have had in quite a while, but I thought they held their own.”
That they did was thanks also to the performance of Michael McGovern, the Hamilton goalkeeper. While his opposite number, Craig Samson, had to be good in the first half, it was the Northern Irishman who stepped up when the game was turned on its head.
With Michael O’Neill, his international manager, watching from the stands, it was a timely reminder of his potential.
“I didn’t do myself any harm,” said McGovern. “I know I am behind Roy Carroll and Alan Mannus
but, hopefully, it shows I can perform to a good level. I am playing at a higher level than I was last season.”
Hamilton will be hoping that some players return for back-to-back matches against Motherwell, on Wednesday and Saturday, but if not, they will get by.
Darren Lyon and Eamon Brophy, both teenagers, were not fazed when they came off the bench, while Neil exerts a positive influence on those around him.
The player-manager dictated Hamilton’s best work, almost all of which was in the first half. He is a combative presence, as his booking for persistent fouling indicated, but he also gave his team the platform to go and play. At that stage, Hamilton were the better of the two teams, winning their battles, passing the ball well and creating what few chances there were. If Tony Andreu’s early opportunity – after a pass by Danny Redmond – had come a little later, he might have done better than pull it wide. Stephen Hendrie’s shot from 35 yards was beaten away by Samson, who also felt the need to deny Andreu’s raking effort, even though it seemed to be off target. Ali Crawford produced the best effort of that opening period when he turned back on himself, spotted the goalkeeper off his line and tried to dip one under the crossbar. Samson responded by tipping it over.
As an attacking force, Kilmarnock had achieved precisely nothing, but they set about rectifying that after the break. Josh Magennis was the focal point of their efforts, although the striker proved to be something of a blunt instrument. When he caught Ziggy Gordon in possession, there was only McGovern to beat, but his shot came back off the advancing goalkeeper. Then, for the first time in the match, Tope Odabeyi got past his opponent and stood up a cross, but Magennis missed. The striker, it has to be said, did rather better with his next effort, launching himself at Robbie Muirhead’s cross, only to see his header land on the roof of the net.
As though sensing an opportunity, Kilmarnock brought on Alexei Eremenko and Chris Johnston, although neither had a part to play in their next attempt. This time it was a free-kick, curled in by Sammy Clingan, parried by McGovern.
Now without Neil, Hamilton were less effective. Ali Crawford’s tame free kick and a hopeful shot, sliced wide by Lyon, was as much as they could manage. Their best player was McGovern, who quickly dashed off his line to deny Rory McKenzie after Eremenko’s sumptuous through ball.
“I don’t think any other person on the park could have played that pass,” said Allan Johnston, the Kilmarnock manager, whose team are now fourth in the Premiership. “We’ve got good players and they showed what they’re capable of. We were a bit unfortunate not to score.”