BETTER late than never. For the first time since February, Hibs tasted victory last night as they dragged themselves back from the Premiership relegation precipice.
SCORERS: Hibernian - Cummings 39′, 55′
Jason Cummings, the 18-year-old striker who has rebuilt his career after injury problems prompted Hearts to release him two years ago, made a massive contribution towards ensuring the Easter Road club do not join their city rivals in the second tier of Scottish football next season.
In his 17th first-team appearance for Terry Butcher’s team, Cummings chose the perfect time to score his first senior goals. He may never score a better one than the blistering long-range shot which gave Hibs the lead six minutes before half-time, while his second may well have put this play-off final tie beyond Hamilton Accies.
Alex Neil’s side contributed much to an absorbing first leg but, crucially, lacked a cutting edge as Hibs recorded a clean sheet for the first time in ten matches. Accies will still hold on to hope they can score first in Sunday’s return in Edinburgh and place fresh pressure on Hibs, but this is a position Butcher’s men should not relinquish.
Hamilton captain Martin Canning, who spent six months on Hibs’ books back in 2008, almost presented his former club with the gift of a chance in the second minute. The central defender, normally such a dependable presence for Accies, did not get as much traction as he would have liked with a passback on the edge of his own penalty area.
Paul Heffernan, preferred to James Collins in attack by Butcher, looked set to pounce as he raced in ahead of Canning but Hamilton goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert rushed smartly off his line to hoof the ball to safety.
The home side gradually found their composure, however, and more than matched Hibs for most of the first half. The first threat to Ben Williams’ goal came in the tenth minute when a slick Accies move culminated in Darian MacKinnon’s cross from the left being intercepted by the alert Lewis Stevenson just as Louis Longridge was setting himself for a simple finish.
There was a rapid response by Hibs, with Sam Stanton doing well to set up a shooting opportunity for Scott Robertson on the edge of the penalty area as Hamilton struggled to clear. The midfielder struck his shot as sweetly as he could have hoped, only to see the ball clip the outside of Cuthbert’s left-hand post.
If that provided encouragement for the visiting fans, there continued to be enough to concern them at the other end of the pitch. The lively and dangerous Longridge picked out James Keatings with a cross from the right and the striker’s first-time volley was booted clear by Michael Nelson.
Robertson picked up the first caution of the evening for a cynical trip on Tony Andreu, a price he clearly felt was worth paying to halt a menacing counter-attack by Hamilton. Keatings then broke free on the left but over-cooked his cross to Mikael Antoine-Curier, who was unable to trouble Williams with his volley from a restrictive angle.
The Championship side were starting to look the more likely to make the breakthrough and should at least have tested Williams in the 37th minute. The industrious MacKinnon found Longridge in space on the left side of the penalty area but the youngster’s composure deserted him as he sliced a shot wide from an inviting position.
It proved to be a damaging miss for Accies as they fell behind just two minutes later to Cummings’ magnificent goal. The teenager gathered the ball midway inside the Hamilton half and, with no immediate challenge presented, he simply strode forward before unleashing a tremendous right-foot shot from around 25 yards which dipped over the helpless Cuthbert into the net.
Hamilton appeared understandably stunned by the nature of the setback but regained their senses quickly enough to come close to an equaliser two minutes before the interval. Nelson completely miscued an attempted clearance inside the penalty area, allowing the ball to drop into the path of Antoine-Curier on the edge of the six-yard box. The striker met it with a fierce volley but Williams was well positioned and stood up strongly to make an important save.
Accies badly needed to carry that level of attacking threat into the early stages of the second half but it was Hibs who took a potentially decisive step towards safety when they doubled their lead nine minutes after the restart.
It was a less spectacular and clear-cut goal by Cummings, but one celebrated with just as much vigour by the travelling support now behind Cuthbert’s goal. Heffernan’s low cross found Cummings on the left of the penalty area and his shot beat Cuthbert and was over the line before Hamilton defender Ziggy Gordon booted the ball back out.
Referee Bobby Madden initially waved play on and Stanton wastefully blazed the loose ball over from around 14 yards. But by that stage, assistant referee Graeme Leslie had communicated to Madden that Cummings’ effort had gone over the line.
Hibs were suddenly in a position of comfort that few people had predicted before the match. Hamilton tried manfully to get themselves back into contention and Cummings had to show off the defensive side of his game when he cleared a Canning header off the line following a Gillespie corner.
Andy Ryan and Jason Scotland stepped off the bench as Hamilton refreshed their attacking options for the closing stages and the two substitutes combined menacingly in the 74th minute. Scotland’s pass set Ryan free on the right of the penalty area but Williams was quickly off his line to make a good blocking save.
Accies battled to the end but Hibs held on to their significant lead with relative comfort.
Referee: B Madden