Familiarity breeds contempt
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Canning, prior to his departure, was the fifth longest serving manager in Scottish football. Change is the order of the day. It happens in football even at fairly successful clubs. The negative characteristics grate on the support and they soon want a fresh face in the dugout. At Hamilton, where they lose much more often than they win, those foibles are magnified further.
Although, as we’ll soon get to, the reasons for wanting rid of the former centre-back go much deeper than ‘ach, I’m just sick of his face’.
The incident at St Johnstone
According to the supporters at the Scottish Cup exit, Martin Canning’s father confronted a group of away fans during the first half over chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” and “Canning, Canning, get to f**k” before being asked to leave by stewards. However, journalists at the game reported - presumably having been told this version of events by someone at the club - that the supporters abused Canning Snr until he was hounded out the door.
Though the manager put the record straight by denying that his father was targetted by a section of the Accies’ support, saying instead that he left of his own accord because his nephew was upset with the chants, the whole thing left a bitter taste in the mouth for those who’d paid to travel to Perth, attend the match and watch for 90 minutes in a freezing stadium while their team barely put up a fight.
The club must have sought to avoid a deepening of the divide between fans and the management staff with their “official” version of events. In reality it did the opposite.
They’re no longer the league’s biggest underdog
Accies supporters have largely been told to be thankful for what they have and to stop moaning, including by this reporter on occasion. To those on the outside, them staying in the league every campaign is a minor miracle and they should be grateful for it. After all, they’ve had the smallest crowds since their first campaign back amongst the elite and therefore it makes it harder for them to progress beyond the relegation battle than any other side.
Things have changed slightly this season with Livingston’s return. At the time of writing the Almondvale club have larger gates thanks to their bigger ground and close proximity to the two Edinburgh clubs, who always bring a sizeable travelling support; there’s been an incredible 200 per cent increase on the average attendance from last season to this one. Therefore, it is assumed that Accies, in their fifth consecutive Premiership season, no longer holds the league’s smallest budget.
What makes things even worse is that Livingston are in eighth place, a whopping 16 points ahead of Accies with a number of important first-team players who were in League One just two years ago. If the Lions can be properly competitive and not just doing the bare minimum to survive, why can’t Accies?
There’s been no progression
As we’ve covered, Accies have always had the lowest average attendances. But if you compare their average gates to other “traditional” top flight clubs then there’s not a huge difference. For instance, they only had an average of 714 fewer fans at their games last term than St Johnstone, who regularly battle for a European place.
Accies, meanwhile, never had a sniff of the top half during Canning’s time in charge. The only occasion they came close was season 2014-15, when a disastrous run of 13 games without victory following Alex Neil’s departure and Canning’s promotion to manager saw them pipped to a top six place by Dundee.
Since then they’ve finished 10th, 11th and 10th. What was most worrying was the points total, which regressed every year: 43, 35 and then 33. And it looks like it’s going to drop again this season. So far they’re on pace to finish with 23 points. Discounting Hearts in 2013/14, who were hindered by a 15-point deduction for going into administration, that total is the worst since Gretna’s relegation in 2008. The now reborn club also accumulated 23 points, though ten were knocked off thanks to their own financial mismanagement penalty.
Somehow Accies remain in tenth place at the moment, but that’s largely thanks to Dundee and St Mirren inexplicably managing to be worse through 23 games. Hoping for continued ineptitude on a grander scale from two other clubs is not the sort of gamble to be taking.
The style of play
Accies have largely relied on an industrious approach during their time in the Premiership but it’s become especially wearisome in the past 12 months. While the team had their share of battlers, they still equipped themselves with attacking and inventive midfielders like Tony Andreu, Ali Crawford, Greg Docherty and David Templeton, talents who could provide a bit of quality. That’s been missing this campaign and it remains to be seen whether Andreu, signed in January, can replicate former glories after suffering a major knee injury last season.
When Docherty left midway through 2017/18, with Crawford struggling with his own injury issues, Canning altered his tactics. Though the basic formation was the same — a 3-5-2 — it was much more cautious. In reality, it was a 5-1-2-2 with the back-line concentrating on one area of the park exclusively, a defensive midfielder sitting in front of them, and two creative midfielders — Templeton and then 18-year-old Lewis Ferguson — supporting the front two. Long balls were the order of the day and it was far from pretty to watch. However, Accies did enough to survive.
Though the personnel changed in the summer, the style of play largely hasn’t, even if the formation isn’t quite as circumspect. Fans will tolerate such dour football only if it’s backed up with results. A 21 per cent win rate wasn’t going to cut it.
Dreadful results in the cup
While managers tend to be more focused on the leagues these days, supporters still pine for a strong cup run. Because while it’s all well and good competing in the top flight for five years, barring the odd historic result — winning at Celtic Park and Ibrox, for example — it’s much easier to create lasting memories through the knockout tournaments. As a lower league side, such opportunities are hard to come by, but when a club vaults themselves into the top 12 in the country it should become much easier to compete in the latter stages.
Instead, Accies have advanced past the second round of a cup competition only once since promotion, and that ended with a 6-0 drubbing to a Rangers side managed by Graeme Murty (the shame!).
Their overall record under the current manager is played 22, won 9, drawn 5 and lost 9. When you consider that 16 of these games have been against lower league opponents, it’s a bad statistic. Indeed, Hamilton have drawn with Dunfermline, Albion Rovers, Airdrieonians, Queen of the South, and lost to Greenock Morton and Annan Athletic (twice!) in the last four years over the two competitions.
The loyalty from the board
It didn’t help that Accies fans used to see their manager as having the safest job in Scottish football. It was previously understood that the club’s board, similar to the situation when Billy Reid kept his role after they were relegated from the top flight, were hoping to stick with Canning even if he remained and failed to secure survival again this term. In a business sense there is some justification for this, while it also displays a kind of loyalty often absent from football these days. But from an emotional standpoint, which is a lens football demands we all look through when judging decisions, the optics weren’t great. Though Canning was undoubtedly doing everything in his power to keep Accies up and improve fortunes on the park, it made their struggles harder to take for a support who felt the manager wouldn’t face the consequences if he failed in his main objective.
They wanted action before it was too late
If you’ve got a manager who’s kept you in the division for four years and you’re toiling once more, do you stick by him because he’s proven his credentials in the, or do you bring in someone else? Option A may seem the easy choice, but each case should be viewed on its own merits. If there’s enough proof that, regardless of prior accomplishment, the current incumbent will not be able to pull the club from its tailspin, then he should go. And that’s what the fans believed about Canning.
Furthermore, as Falkirk, Dunfermline and Dundee United have demonstrated over the past few years, it’s much more difficult to get out of the second tier than it is to avoid relegation into it. And those clubs mentioned are all bigger fish in that particular pond than Hamilton will be if they go down. Action was required and the board finally agreed.