THERE is no senior club in Scotland which has done more to alter the perception of Junior football than Hamilton Accies.
Four of their probable starting line-up to face visitors Aberdeen this afternoon have first-hand experience of the semi-pro ranks and provide proof that there are further potential stars waiting to be propelled into the Premiership.
Midfielder Louis Longridge was spotted while playing for Bo’ness United, the West Lothian club which provided playmaker Ali Crawford with valuable early experience during his loan spell there.
Winger Dougie Imrie began his career with Lanark United while Darian Mackinnon joined from Clydebank aged 26, at a time when most have given up hope of pursuing a full-time career.
It probably helps that Hamilton vice-chairman Ronnie McDonald came from that background, having bankrolled Maryhill Juniors in the 1990s, but Longridge is convinced there are other nuggets waiting to be discovered.
“The Junior game is an untapped market and there are more players in there who could do a job at this level,” said the 23-year-old. “I think other clubs are now starting to look at Junior players,” he said. “A lot of them started with senior clubs and didn’t quite get that break.
“Hamilton are certainly trying to make more signings from those clubs because you can’t really lose.
“If it doesn’t work out then it hasn’t really cost you anything and, if it does, you’ve got someone for your first team that you might be able to sell on at a decent profit. There is definitely talent there.
“I wasn’t in the Juniors long before I got my move here but it was even rougher than I expected, which might make spotting the better players a bit harder. It was different to what I’d been expecting.
“Obviously, It has a reputation and I knew that. I thought there would be football played but sometimes it was just lump it up the pitch and fight for seconds!”
Even so, Longridge believes that evading the hard men was part of the learning curve which prepared him for the pace of top-class football.
“It opens your eyes,” he said. “You don’t hold onto the ball, you just want to get rid of it quickly. It definitely makes you sharper and switches you on and that helps people.
“At first-team senior level there might not be the same kind of rough tackles, but you definitely have to be sharp, mentally.
“I didn’t get injured [playing for Bo’ness] because I managed to get the ball out of my feet in time.”
Player-manager Martin Canning is hoping for his first victory in six games since boyhood friend Alex Neil left for Norwich City last month and he admits he has been glued to the box in an attempt to stop that rot.
The 33-year-old, who will also be the most vocal component of Hamilton’s rearguard against the Dons, has been obsessively studying DVDs of his side’s games since he moved into the hot seat at New Douglas Park.
“Even as a player I enjoyed watching games I had played in,” said the 33-year-old. “Now, as a manager I am watching the whole team and, if you watch it once, you see pretty much everything you want to see.
“Usually on a Saturday night I will go back and watch it right away. But, if I’m bored, I’ll stick it on the computer again. If it’s a Sunday and the wife is watching dancing or something then I’ll watch it again.
“I would rather watch the game five times than watch Strictly Come Dancing once!
“You never know – you might just be able to pick something out that will help you go forward. That’s the idea, anyway.”
Canning has also been in constant touch with his predecessor, although he stressed that would have been the case even if he had won every match.
“Alex is my best mate and has been since we were ten years old,” he said.
“Like anyone else, you speak to your best mate every couple of days and, with us, football dominates the conversation – it has done since we were at school.
“We will always talk but in terms of advice, he is there if I need him. Whether it’s business or what is happening in our kids’ lives, we will always have contact.”