WHEN Hamilton Accies lost 2-0 at home to Inverness on the opening day of the Scottish Premiership season, those who had predicted an immediate return to the Championship for the Lanarkshire club would already have been feeling vindicated.
Two months later, those forecasts have been utterly confounded by Alex Neil’s progressive young side as they look down from the summit of the top flight.
Sunday’s stunning 1-0 win at Celtic Park, the club’s first there for 76 years, maintained a brilliant start to the season in which Accies have reeled off six victories and two draws since that sole loss to Inverness.
They have conceded just five goals in their first nine games, the best defensive record in the division, and only second-placed Dundee United have bettered their tally of 16 at the other end of the pitch. Whatever way you look at the Premiership table right now, with champions Celtic floundering somewhat in sixth spot, it is a remarkable sight.
You might already be scraping around for short odds on the impressive Neil landing the Manager of the Year honours this season.
Dougie Imrie, one of the older hands in Neil’s team, believes the man who has guided Accies to such lofty heights has no equal in the way he prepares his players for the task in hand.
“The detail the gaffer and his management team put together on the teams we are going to play is second to none,” said Imrie.
“He has his philosophy on how he wants us to play and from Monday to Friday, his work on the team and our opposition is far in excess of what happens at any other club I’ve played for. I think that has given us an edge this season.”
For the 31-year-old Imrie, now in his second spell at Hamilton, Sunday’s win at Celtic Park was his second in just over 12 months, having scored the winner for Morton last season when they knocked the Scottish champions out of the League Cup.
“Teams no longer fear going to Celtic Park,” insisted the midfielder. “It’s the same for Ibrox. Teams go to these grounds now and actually have a go. In the past, you might have tried to put 11 men behind the ball and if you got a draw, it was viewed as a great result. But now teams will try to take the game to them and try to pick up points.
“Alex Neil wants us to get the ball down and play. There is no point just going to Celtic Park and trying to defend for 90 minutes. If you do that, Celtic will just keep coming at you and eventually they will score. Once that happens, then it ends up being attack, attack, attack from Celtic.
“For us on Sunday, the most important thing was to get the ball down, try to play through them when they could and show them that we had come to play. We did that in spells. Celtic were dominant for long periods of the game, but we showed at times what we are capable of and why we have done so well this season.
“The first game of the season was disappointing but we weren’t properly prepared for it, we gave Inverness too much respect. But since then we’ve been fantastic. The manager has given us the belief to go out and play.
“We gave Celtic the utmost respect, but we didn’t fear them. We took the game to them when we could, thankfully got the first goal and then held out for the three points.”
Hamilton will resume after the international break with a Friday night home fixture against Aberdeen. Imrie says Premiership survival remains their primary objective and is wary of setting their sights too high.
“That is now nine games gone and we are top of the league with 20 points out of 27,” he said. “For us, it is one game at a time and the prerogative is still to stay in the league and anything better than that would be a bonus. We will see where this season takes us.
“Anything can happen in the league. We are not going to say we can do this or that because if we did then that would just be stupid and leave us setting ourselves up for a fall. We will still be taking it one game at a time. Celtic are everyone’s pick to win the league but it won’t be easy for them. They have dropped a lot of points already and still have a lot of games left to play in Europe.
“For Accies, it is a great achievement so far because we have such a young team. Most of the boys in the team are under 23 and there is only myself, Michael McGovern, Mickael Antoine-Curier and Tony Andreu who are older than that.
“The experience the young kids have had over the last couple of seasons has been excellent and if some of them keep going the way they are going, then they might not be here soon.
“That is the last four games where we have kept a clean sheet. If we can keep the team together without getting injuries then everyone knows their job and the confidence will continue to grow. The manager and backroom staff have us sorted and organised down to a tee.
“If we can keep that solid foundation for the season then we could do well but it all depends if we pick up those little niggling injuries and we are trying to mix and match with players. It has been a case of so far so good and we know we will have a sticky patch but we will be ready for that when it comes along.”