For the third year in succession, the Premiership play-off final proved a bridge too far for the contenders from the Championship.
Greg Docherty’s second-half goal was enough for Hamilton Accies to retain their top-flight status against a leg-weary Dundee United who must now count the cost of at least one more season in Scottish football’s second tier.
While the controversy of last Thursday’s first leg at Tannadice will rankle with United, who felt they were denied the chance to take a lead into yesterday’s showdown by the disputed decision to send Simon Murray off for diving rather than award them a penalty kick, Hamilton were merited winners in the final analysis.
United simply lacked the quality necessary to impose any degree of authority on the tie and are left to contemplate what degree of surgery is required on their squad to try to secure the comfort of automatic promotion next season.
The sense that the play-off system is heavily weighted in favour of the club who finish second bottom of the Premiership was strengthened here as United’s sixth game in 20 days ultimately took its toll.
For Hamilton manager Martin Canning, the considerable achievement of guiding his unfashionable club to a fourth consecutive season in the top division for the first time since Scottish football was restructured back in 1975 is no mean feat.
Occasions such as these are always more likely to be fraught than free-flowing and so it proved. The tension was almost tangible, especially among the large United support who filled two sides of the ground on an afternoon which carried such significant implications for their club.
They were almost provided with a perfect early nerve-soother. Ray McKinnon’s side came close to grabbing the lead in the fifth minute when Blair Spittal’s corner from the right found Tony Andreu at the near post. The United playmaker diverted the ball towards goal with a clever flick but a brilliant reaction save from Remi Matthews turned it wide.
Accies, perhaps due to the number of key players they were missing through injury and suspension, took longer to settle. They gave the home fans their first moment of encouragement when Rakish Bingham did well to create an opening for Ali Crawford, whose shot was fairly comfortably held by Cammy Bell.
Murray, predictably jeered every time he touched the ball by the Accies fans after his contentious simulation in the first leg, dragged a shot wide as United continued to probe for the crucial breakthrough.
It was eye-watering fare at times, the ball lumped high into the air by both sides as the fear of making a mistake suffocated any instinct to try and produce more cohesive and progressive football.
It was an error by Charlie Telfer which saw Accies come close in the 24th minute. The United midfielder gifted possession to Danny Redmond who found Crawford in space on the edge of the penalty area. His sweetly struck shot was parried by Bell before Paul Dixon’s desperate clearance rebounded off Redmond to safety.
It sparked a decent spell for Canning’s side who were denied the lead by a stunning Bell save five minutes later. Redmond’s free-kick from the right broke into the path of Crawford who again met it with the cleanest of strikes. It looked like a goal all the way until Bell flung himself to his right to make a one-handed intervention.
United were struggling to carve out any clear cut opportunities at the other end but almost snatched the advantage five minutes before the interval. Telfer broke free on the right and Accies defender Scott McMann’s attempt to cut out his dangerous cross only succeeded in sending the ball towards his own goal. To McMann’s relief, Matthews again displayed tremendous reflexes to turn the ball over the crossbar.
United were first to threaten after the break when a dipping 25-yard volley from Dixon was calmly gathered by Matthews. But it was the hosts, with Louis Longridge replacing the tiring David Templeton, who gradually seized the initiative and built up a head of steam, which led to Docherty’s goal.
Bingham was denied by a superbly timed penalty area block by Mark Durnan in the 56th minute, then Bell made a fine save to keep out Dougie Imrie’s shot from point blank range. United were becoming increasingly confined to their own half of the pitch and it was little surprise when they fell behind in the 64th minute. Accies patiently pieced together a smart move down the left, eventually feeding the ball to Docherty some 22 yards out. His right foot shot went through the legs of Willo Flood as the United midfielder attempted to make an interception and beat Bell low to his right.
These were desperate times for United and they resorted to desperate measures in the closing stages, throwing central defender Durnan into attack in a bid to somehow find the goal which would take the tie into extra time.
A mistake from Ioannis Skondras gave Murray a clear sight of goal but the striker scooped his shot over as the clock ran down. The sight of Imrie, playing despite the painful injury he suffered in the first leg, making a stoppage time tackle on the edge of his own penalty area, summed up the committed nature of Hamilton’s display which deservedly got them over the line.