Unloved but unbreakable, a Hamilton side that cannot be prised from the top flight despite all manner of financial and footballing disadvantages, didn’t really have moments yesterday when their palms might have even slightly moistened as they secured their Premiership status.
A record sixth consecutive season in the upper tier of the Scottish game was achieved with an absence of drama at a club that doesn’t tend to engender much of it. In common with not engendering much support or affection – their hot-potch half stadium and plastic pitch frankly seeming more fitting for the Lowland League.
An 11th minute goal from Ziggy Gordon set them on their way yesterday. And although St Johnstone stroked the ball around well enough in spells thereafter, the visitors – who had made certain of seventh place a week earlier – were “toothless”, as their manager Tommy Wright recognised.
The bite that Hamilton have utilised to clamp on to their elite standing was never then going to desert them once they claimed a second through the hulking Stevie Davies on the hour mark. Indeed, on reflection, the prospects of them losing at home yesterday – as St Mirren won at Dundee – to condemn them to the play-offs instead of the Paisley club were always slim.
It is easily forgotten, though, how slim their prospects of avoiding such a scenario were when Brian Rice was appointed in late January after Martin Canning was relieved of his duties.
Rice then stated his intention to remould Hamilton and cast aside their stuffy ways in favour of a more progressive approach. It seemed he was being far too bold in his first frontline position, but his efforts have paid off. Hamilton had only 14 points from 23 games when Rice was installed. With five wins and four draws in his 15 game tenure, he has moved the club on, by moving the team forward.
He has also changed the atmosphere among the small band of home supporters – even if they had to be implored by the PA announcer to stay beyond full-time and show their appreciation. Most of the 2,253 did so, and were treated to the sight of Dougie Imrie, babe in arms, weeping as he took the [half] lap of honour on the day of his 504th, and final, senior career appearance before he becomes a full-time coach in the Hamilton set-up.
It is a club that means little to outsiders, but plenty to the dedicated faithful. And it meant plenty to Rice, erstwhile assistant at Falkirk, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Hibernian and St Mirren.
“We set out to win,” he said. “That’s the way I see football. The best way to defend is to attack. In the first 30 there were no nerves or anxiety. We went with a game plan, stuck to it and got the first goal.
“It tops everything I’ve ever done in football. I was brought in having only ever worked with one player before. That’s very unusual. I brought George [Oakley] in and it was a transition for the players, not knowing each other and trying to install my style on them. So all credit to the playing staff who have taken it on board. The work we’ve put in during afternoons and Sunday mornings has paid off for us.
“It’s not about Brian Rice. It’s about Hamilton and the players. I’m 55. I’m just delighted I got the chance to coach. My title is head coach and that says everything about me. I never wanted to be a manager. I’m at my happiest on the training pitch, whether it’s first team in the morning or the kids in the afternoon.”
The camaraderie of the club was alighted on by Davies. A Godzilla-type figure of a striker – generous of girth and frame – he capitalised on shoddy defending to steer in 20-yard low drive for the second goal after Gordon had capitalised on, er, shoddy defending to bundle the ball in from six yards following a corner.
“We know everyone’s against us and no-one wants us in this league,” said the 31-year-old forward signed by Canning days before his sacking. “But we’ve got 25 lads who give everything for this shirt. That performance today showed what it means to them and we’re here to stay. I’ve picked up on the siege mentality since I arrived. I’ve only been here a short period of time but you can sense it.
“We don’t have the biggest fanbase but we’ve got a gang of lads who are loyal to each other. Different managers moan about our pitch but that’s not our fault. We’re just honest professionals who want to win matches. We’ve done that today to secure our place in this league.”