Whisper it quietly, but is there a little bit of optimism creeping into Scottish football? The national team is keeping its hopes alive in the European Championship qualifiers and there is a realistic chance that they could make France 2016. In the domestic game, the continued absence of Rangers seems to have had a demotivating affect on Celtic, although by the end of the campaign, they will surely regain their logical place at the head of the Scottish game. Celtic and Rangers need each other, although very few fans on either side will probably admit that.
No, the positive vibes are not coming from Ibrox or Celtic Park, but from little Hamilton Academical, some 12 miles from central Glasgow. This is not a club that is used to success, indeed they have won nothing significant throughout their long history. But in 2013-14, the Accies won back the Premier Division place they lost in 2011.
They’ve slipped down to fourth in the Scottish Premier table after setting the early season pace, but Hamilton have surprised everyone with their youthful vigour and surprising results. Admittedly, there may have been an element of “new boys’ enthusiasm” after their promotion last season, but people are looking at Hamilton and wondering if their model can act as a blueprint for the future of Scottish football.
Take their 1-0 win at Celtic in September as a case in point. It was their first win at Celtic in 76 years and sent them clear at the top of the table. Hamilton’s team that pulled off this famous victory was very young with eight of their players coming through the academy system.
Hamilton’s player-manager, Alex Neil, was not surprised by this result. He should know a thing or two about his squad – he coached some of them from under-17 through to the first team. Developing home grown talent is obviously the way ahead for nations like Scotland. They’ve had their share of imports over the years and people are now starting to realize that such a policy eventually impacts the national team in a negative way. England are only just waking up to this.
Hamilton’s Chief Executive, Colin McGowan, told the media that “something special is going to happen here” as he showed reporters round the New Douglas Park stadium. It doesn’t sound as though it will be an accident, either. When McGowan and his pals – a group of 10 – bought the club for the princely sum of £1, they pledged to build a team based on youth. The club is now reaping the rewards of that policy and also benefitting from those that move on to higher things – such as the hefty sell-on fee received from the sale of James McArthur by Wigan to Crystal Palace. Other players, such as midfielder Ali Crawford, could go the same way as McArthur.
McGowan, a reformed alcoholic and drug-user, also set-up a recovery unit for the addicted at the club. The club gives away hundreds of tickets to the families of those affected by drugs and alcohol and also free meals. To quote McGowan, “I’m putting a wee bit back in.”
The accent on youth and social responsibility work has increased the club’s popularity, but they still struggle to get support at the gate. Their average gate this season is 2,122 – the lowest in the top flight, but 700 up on 2013-14.
Those people that have turned up have seen some highly encouraging performances from Neil’s side. They lost their opening game of the season, but then went on an impressive run that included victory against Scottish Cup holders St. Johnstone, Celtic and Aberdeen. Since mid-October, their form has been patchy, with one win in five. That win was on November 22 against St.Mirren (3-0). Neil refuses to accommodate talk of bubbles bursting and just highlights the league table and 27 points from 14 games. Nobody truly expected Hamilton’s late summer flourish to be maintained for an entire campaign.
But with the Scottish Cup approaching and a possible place in Europe up for grabs, Hamilton can be optimistic about their prospects for the rest of 2014-15. Hamilton’s only stab at real glory came in the Scottish Cup in 1911 and 1935. It’s about time those red and white hoops had something to show for their efforts – and it’s worth bearing in mind that next season, Rangers may be back in the top division and the dynamics will change once more…