Hamilton are having a decent season by their standards. Given the resources at their disposal…
Every year it’s the same old story. Before the season begins, fans and pundits are quick to say that this will be the year. It has to be, they say. They’ve been overperforming for too long. Others have improved while they’ve stayed still. It’s only a matter of time before they go down. Surely, it has to be this year.
Hamilton Accies fans are probably sick of it and with good reason. Every year, without fail, their team is always amongst the favourites to get relegated to the Championship. And yet here we are at the end of March and once again Hamilton look like a pretty safe bet to beat the drop. So how is Martin Canning doing it?
For three of the four seasons that Hamilton have been in Scotland’s top flight, relegation has remained a very real concern by the time January comes around. The lone exception was in the 2014/15 season when after gaining promotion to the Premiership, Accies stunned the league with a series of impressive results that eventually resulted in a top six finish and manager Alex Neil sealing a move to Norwich City.
So despite often languishing around the foot of the table going into the second half of the season, Accies usually find a way to escape the dogfight. In 2015/16 and 2016/17, Canning’s points-per-game ratio increased during the second half of the season – indicating that Accies do improve as the season goes on. In some instances it’s merely a marginal improvement, but still: it is improvement.
Now, this isn’t the case this season but there are two reasons for this. Firstly, Accies have only played seven Premiership fixtures this year so we have a small sample. The second, more pertinent point is that if Canning’s team finish in the bottom six (as looks likely) then their final five matches will be against poorer opposition, thus giving them a greater chance of adding to their points haul.
Another factor in Hamilton’s continued survival is the club’s transfer policy, particularly in the January transfer window. For most clubs in the lower half of the Premiership, the winter window is often dreaded. After all, buying superior players simply isn’t going to happen with the financial restrictions in place at a club like Hamilton Academical. Instead the club are forced to sign players on free contracts or on loan. Not to mention that should a team with a bit of money take an interest in a star player, then turning down ever-increasing bids can prove difficult.
But this is where Canning exceeds where others so often fail. The last four January transfer windows have seen big changes at New Douglas Park – key players have left, replacements have been hastily signed yet Accies still do enough to pull away from the foot of the league. The likes of Greg Docherty, Michael Devlin and Tony Andreu have all left the club halfway through the season in recent years but Canning has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to pick up the pieces and remodel his squad.
Praise is also due for Hamilton’s recruitment policy. The club have developed a well-earned reputation for giving academy players a chance in the first team but when Canning has had to dip his toes into the January market, the 36-year-old has a good record of success. David Templeton, Giannis Skondras and Alex Gogic all joined during last year’s January window and all three are now key members of Canning’s squad.
This leaves Hamilton in an envious position. With Canning at the helm, results consistently improve as the season goes on and Accies are apparently immune to the team suffering when a star player is sold. So next season, when the inevitable questions of Hamilton’s relegation prospects are raised, just remember: Canning has upset the odds on more than one occasion. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.