Hamilton Accies manager Martin Canning was entitled to take the plaudits for his side’s first victory of the Premiership campaign after a dramatic double substitution turned this Lanarkshire derby on its head three quarters of the way through.
Motherwell had been the dominant force but could not prise open a well-drilled Accies defence. Then, when Peter Hartley fouled Mickel Miller on the edge of the penalty area, Canning played his master stroke.
Ross Cunningham, who was sent on for Miller, smashed the resulting free-kick against the defensive wall and fellow substitute Steven Boyd, also with his first touch after replacing the ineffective Sam Kelly, volleyed the loose ball into the postage-stamp corner from 18 yards.
“It’s nice when your substitutions work,” said Canning. “Ross Cunningham is fantastic with free-kicks so we sent him on to see if he could produce a bit of magic. It would probably have been better for him if it had been six or seven yards further back but Steven Boyd ended up producing the magic and what a hit – it was a goal worthy of winning any game.
“It was a fantastic strike but he has so much magic in him – it’s just a question of getting it out. He beats himself up too much at times but I told the pair of them just to go on and enjoy themselves because it wasn’t as if we’d been setting the world alight beforehand.
“There was no pressure on them because we’d been doing nothing until they went on.
“We could have won by more because Ross missed a couple of chances and he was quite upset at the end but he’s now at the forefront of my mind when it comes to changing things from the bench.”
Motherwell created the first clear-cut opening in the 16th minute when Gael Bigirimana, the smallest player on the park, was left with a free header from Chris Cadden’s cross but Gary Woods reacted smartly to parry his effort low to his right.
Conor Sammon was fortunate not to be dismissed eight minutes later when he flattened Hamilton’s Ziggy Gordon with a forearm smash during an aerial challenge. Fortunately for the Hearts loanee, referee Nick Walsh reckoned that a yellow card was sufficient punishment when a straight red appeared the more appropriate sanction.
Sammon almost added insult to injury when he flicked on a Richard Tait cross for Curtis Main who, under pressure from Shaun Want, managed to fire narrowly wide from 12 yards.
The hosts continued to dominate territorially after the break and Main should have at least forced a save from Woods when sent clear by Allan Campbell but he pulled his shot wide of the far post.
Woods sprang to his left to push away a free-kick from Bigirimana which had come through a ruck of players but the goal would not come.
Hamilton were hanging on by their fingertips and, lacking an out ball, were creating next to nothing themselves so it was very much against the run of play when they took the lead midway through the second period.
However, they could easily have doubled their advantage five minutes later when Rakish Bingham left Hartley for dead but Ross Cunningham snatched at his cutback and spooned his shot from six yards over the bar and missed another pinch in stoppage time.