IN THE build-up, Hamilton manager Alex Neil remarked that the Championship title race would be won by whichever side could best handle the pressure.
Livingston 1 - 1 Hamilton Academical
At Energy Assets Stadium
Scorers: Livi; Kyle Jacobs 63, Hamilton; Scotland 85
Rather than playing mind games with the opposition it now seems those words were a forewarning to his own players after a flat performance in Almondvale caused the former leaders to slip from the league summit with only three games remaining.
Jason Scotland’s late equaliser earned the visitors a point that their play didn’t deserve. They were already feeling the strain of a listless display when things went from bad to worse as Stephen Hendrie’s red card was closely followed by Kyle Jacobs opening the scoring for Livingston.
Rather than wilt in the face of such adversary, Hamilton refused to crumble and managed to nick a result that keeps them two points off Dundee.
“I’m disappointed,” said Neil after the game. “I had warned the players before the match that there could be a bit of a comedown after last week [and the 1-1 draw with Dundee], what with all the fans and the hype surrounding the game. That goal could prove to be crucial. It keeps the race at a one-game swing. All we can do now is win the rest of our matches and hope that someone takes points off Dundee.”
Looking ahead to the remaining games, it’s difficult to see where that slip-up is going to come.
Coincidentally, both teams play the exact same three teams in their remaining fixtures: Alloa, Dumbarton and Morton. However, while Hamilton have two home games to Dundee’s one they still face the toughest encounter in the run-in with a trip to Dumbarton coming in a fortnight’s time. If they’re going to get full points against Ian Murray’s side they’re going to have to start with greater intensity than they managed yesterday.
Livingston, still hoping to qualify for the play-offs, began the brighter and should have been ahead within six minutes. Mark McNulty fired straight at Kevin Cuthbert and saw his follow-up deflected wide by the diving challenge of Jesus Garcia Tena.
That wouldn’t even be the worst chance McNulty missed on the day. On 30 minutes Martin Scott’s low cross was controlled by the striker before he was muscled off the play. The loose ball came for Mark Burchill who drew a challenge from Martin Canning and the referee pointed to the spot. McNulty took the responsibility and crashed his penalty off the crossbar.
Neil had moved his side from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 and back again but still couldn’t get his charges going. Things looked to be improving when the second half started until Hendrie’s red card on 54 minutes hampered their cause. The young left-back had already been booked for an early challenge when he decided to pull back on the shirt of McNulty as the striker raced down the right wing. It was an easy decision for the referee to make.
Livingston were hardly brilliant themselves – the swirling winds a major factor in the poor passing performance of both teams – though nobody could begrudge their 1-0 lead when Jacobs was alert enough to fire a loose ball in the penalty area past a helpless Cuthbert.
Just when they should have been looking to kill the game the home side allowed the ten men to put them under increasing pressure and were punished for some abysmal defending. Camped around their own penalty area the Livingston defence somehow allowed Jason Scotland, the biggest goal threat left on the park, to collect the ball in space before turning and firing past the goalkeeper from ten yards out.
The inability to close the game out leaves the hosts five points from the play-offs and little hope of overhauling both Dumbarton and Queen of the South.
“The goal summed up our season to be honest,” said Livingston boss John McGlynn. “We do a lot of good things and then we cost ourselves the points with a slip in concentration.”