MARTIN Canning has already plotted one minor victory for Hamilton Accies over Hibs this season. Now he is intent on playing an integral part in another which would have seismic implications for his former club.
The veteran defender, who spent a short spell at Hibs six years ago, combines his first-team duties at New Douglas Park with a coaching role in charge of Hamilton’s Under-17 side.
“I was actually through at Hibs’ training ground in East Mains for a game against them about six weeks ago,” smiles Canning. “We won the game 1-0, so hopefully that’s a good omen for the week ahead!”
Accies secured their place in the Premiership play-off final with a 1-0 win over Falkirk and will welcome Hibs to New Douglas Park tomorrow night before the second leg at Easter Road on Sunday.
“When I was through for that under-17 game, the people at Hibs were talking about how they could do with a win just to make sure they were safe,” added Canning. “It was just before they played Hearts.
“I’m still quite friendly with Tam McCourt, the laundry guy at Hibs who has been there for years, and even at that point he was saying they could do with a win. They didn’t manage to get it in the last few weeks of the season.
“I don’t think you could sense a nervousness about the place, although obviously they were looking at their position in the league at the time and saying they felt one more win would pretty much do it for them in terms of safety.
“It is a difficult position for them to be in. They are a bigger club than Hamilton, but in terms of a group of boys on the pitch, we believe in ourselves to approach the game properly.”
Canning joined Hibs from Gretna in February 2008 and made just 13 first-team appearances under Mixu Paatelainen’s management before he was allowed to leave six months later to join Hamilton.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Hibs, even though it was brief,” said the 32-year-old. “I got on great with everyone at the club.
“It was just that I wanted to play every week. No-one is guaranteed to play every week, of course, but I wanted to know that if I was doing my job properly, I’d be in the team.
“At the time, they had Rob Jones and Chris Hogg who were both doing really well in central defence – the captain and the vice-captain. So it was difficult for me to displace them. I found myself playing right-back most of the time, which wasn’t what I wanted to do.
“I had three or four options to leave and play elsewhere, to teams who wanted me in the position I wanted to play. That was the reason I left.
“I had a bit of a battle with the manager and chairman of Hibs at the time to get out. Thankfully for me, they did let me go so I could play regular football at Hamilton. They realised how important it was for me.
“But I did enjoy my time there and had a lot of respect for everyone at the club. I’m at Hamilton now, though, and obviously want to go and do a job for them in this play-off final.
“It is a bit of a surprise to see Hibs involved in it. They are a big club. But you see it in every league, whether it’s the Premier League in England or up here, that no-one is too big to be in trouble.
“If you get into that run of form which Hibs have had, then it’s difficult to turn it around. So for us, it’s a great opportunity to play a big club and hopefully show how good we can be. On a personal level, it will be good to go back to Easter Road and try to make sure we get through.”
While Hamilton’s players are relishing their second chance at promotion, having finished runners-up to Dundee in the Championship, Canning does not believe Terry Butcher’s men will be approaching the play-off games with great enthusiasm.
“Hibs won’t want to be in this situation,” he added. “We were desperate to be playing in this tie and they will probably be gutted they are in it. So for us it’s a great occasion, while for them it’s something they could do without.
“We wanted to win the Championship outright, of course, but when you don’t win the title, this is the game you want to be involved in. So all the hard work we’ve done up until now is nothing compared to what we still have to do over two legs against Hibs.
“Hibs have had a couple of weeks’ break. They will have watched our play-off semi-final games against Falkirk and will know what they are facing. They will be ready to go.
“So you can say we are going into it with a positive momentum and they could be coming in with negative momentum, but it’s a ‘one-off’ tie – albeit over two legs – and I think the form goes out the window.
“Hibs have big players and good players. It’s an occasion nonetheless and whether they want to be in it or not, they can raise their game for it. I’m sure they will have no problem getting up for it. It’s up to us to produce our best.
“I think we have shown plenty of bottle throughout the season. We were second in the table most of the way and always had the bottle to win big games. There were only one or two where we didn’t do as well as we should. But that’s never knocked us, we’ve always been able to bounce back for the next big game and go again. The two games against Falkirk proved that. In the first leg, we were the better team. On Sunday, Falkirk had a few chances here and there but I felt we were the team that deserved to win.
“Missing out on the title can be used as a motivational factor. The gaffer has been great all season that way. It’s a young squad, full of enthusiastic boys just desperate to go and play football. Whatever game it is, they are just desperate to play and win. It’s great to be involved in a team like that.
“We’ve approached every game this season to try and win it and I’d imagine it will be the same tomorrow night. We will be in their face from the first minute and look to make it as difficult for them as possible. We are all about trying to go forward and score goals.”
Hamilton player-manager Alex Neil faces a decision on whether to restore himself to his side against Hibs, having now completed a suspension.
“The gaffer has always been honest about his own place in the team,” said Canning. “At times when he was injured, he even said he wouldn’t change anything even if he was fit because the boys who were playing were doing their jobs and doing them well.
“It’s a big decision for him but I’m sure he will make the right call. He’s made the right calls time and time again throughout the season. He’s prepared the boys brilliantly for every game we’ve played, in terms of the opposition and shape of the team. I’ve no doubts he will make the right calls this week too.”