Two goals in six second half minutes helped give Hearts the three points and maintained their impressive run of results. But, although they added another late on to end the match comfortably on top, it was a victory that had to be ground out.
The Gorgie side went into this one on the back of 10 games without defeat and with an impressive defensive record of seven games without conceding a goal. But the last team to deny them a clean sheet was Martin Canning’s men.
That was back at the beginning of December and it was a match mired in acrimony as Hearts management and players were sent to the stand. But even having seen out most of that match with 10 men, the Gorgie side had been the better team and will have gone into this one believing that with a full complement and bolstered by the presence of Steven Naismith in attack, they could take ensure a better outcome this time around.
Just before kick-off, Hamilton made official what had already been made clear by the absence of the influential Greg Docherty from the teamsheet, revealing that a fee had been agreed between the clubs and the midfielder is on his way to Rangers.
With Preston North End also matching Hamilton’s financial demands, Michael Devlin could be the next man heading out the door. It leaves the Hamilton manager juggling his pack and trying to find a new formula to keep them in the top flight.
Greek striker Marios Ogkmpoe had been brought in and he was given a starting berth but while Hamilton did manage to manufacture the odd effort at goal, it was David Templeton who looked the most likely.
Hearts had started without Isma Goncalves, who appears to be en route to Uzbekistan, and as Craig Levein packed his side with young contenders, it seems increasingly likely that fellow forward Cole Stockton could be the next to seek a fresh challenge, as he was absent from the squad.
If the last contest between these two was compelling in its competitiveness, this one was just ugly and that was down to the football on show or, to be more accurate the absence of it. Neither team could get a hold of the match and piece together many sequences of merit. Lacking any kind of rhythm, the ball pinballed between the sides. It made for little quality.
It was Templeton who tested the Hearts rearguard early on, bursting through after John Souttar had misjudged the bounce of the ball. But Demetri Mitchell was quick to get across to cover and give keeper Jon McLaughlin time to get out and gather.
The ball was battered from one end of the pitch to the other as both teams struggled. Hearts had made changes to the midfield that had commanded the middle of the park in the capital derby victory. But it took the introduction of Arnaud Djoum at the start of the second half and David Milinkovic just after the hour mark to give them the edge.
Andrew Irving had tried for the opener but like so much in that first half it was swallowed up by a sea of bodies. A short corner saw Mitchell swing a ball into the area but while Lewis Moore challenged, it was too close to Gary Woods.
The best of the changes at that stage were Hamilton’s though. Templeton saw another effort skite just wide of McLaughlin’s post and Danny Redmond sent in a corner that the former Hearts winger volleyed goalwards but McLaughlin got down.
There was a block from Darren Lyon at the other end when Mitchell pulled the trigger.
But the sides remained in deadlock, unable to find a bit of quality in the final third to make the difference.
In such a situation the first goal was always going to have a massive say in who would go on to win this tussle and Hamilton will be kicking themselves as they contributed to their own downfall.
In the 67th minute, Naismith was gifted an advantage by Alex Gogic, who allowed him to nip in and nick possession near the byeline and, as the defender was left on the turf, the ball was played across goal for Ross Callachan to virtually pass into a gaping net.
Six minutes later the ball was played over the top by Irving for substitute Milkinkovic to race on to and while the home fans screamed for offside, the Serbian charged forward and, one on one with the keeper, he coolly slotted home the guests’ second goal.
With three minutes remaining they made it three when Milinkovic kept ball alive and dinked it over Nasmith to David Zanatta at the back post and the lad who has only just returned from a loan spell with Raith Rovers volleyed it past Woods.
HAMILTON: Woods, McMann, Tomas, Imrie, Redmond (Rojano 72), Gogic, Templeton, Mackinnon, Lyon, Ferguson, Ogkmpoe. Unused subs: Fulton, Hughes, Tierney, Want, Cunningham, Kozoronis.
HEARTS: McLaughlin, Randall, Souttar, Berra, Mitchell, Cowie (Zanatta 84), Callachan, Cochrane (Djoum, 46), Irving, Moore Milinkovic 62), Naismith. Unused subs: Hamilton, Smith, Hughes, McDonald.