Hibs Suffer Sensational Relegation As Accies Rise Again
It was called the unthinkable, not just in and around Easter Road, but also across most of Scotland. As one of the pillars of Scottish football slid down the table, we all thought, deep down, they would somehow muddle through.
Despite those instincts, Hibernian players, management, board and supporters are waking up this morning to the stark realisation that they have been relegated. Next season now has the unlikely spectacle that three of the best five supported clubs in the country, and two of the three most successful in recent years, will be in Scotland's second tier. That last stat doesn't include the Leith outfit, either, which demonstrates the enormous problems they face.
It's something player-manager Alex Neil and his charges don't have to worry about. Instead, champagne is rightly flowing at New Douglas Park, celebrating an astonishing and deserved promotion, and a season in the promised land of the Premiership which they have every chance of surviving and flourishing in.
Although it's only three years since Hamilton Academical last graced Scotland's top tier, it seemed a million miles away after Wednesday's 2-0 home defeat in the first leg. This side, however, have fought against the odds all season and frankly played the better football. There was a quiet confidence in the South Lanarkshire side's ranks that if they could draw first blood at Easter Road, promotion was definitely still on.
In stark contrast, the vast, vast majority of the 18,000 strong Easter Road crowd sat in silence, nerves getting to them as the teams kicked off. Within 13 minutes, their neurosis, despite the two goal advantage, was exacerbated when Hamilton took the lead.
Ryan McGivern carelessly misplaced placed was easily intercepted by Ali Crawford, which was then flicked on by Jon Routledge to that wily veteran Jason Scotland. He showed exactly why he went to the 2006 World Cup with Trinidad & Tobago by beautifully turning his marker, Michael Nelson, on the edge of the area, before his left footed shot in a central position nestled in the bottom left hand corner of the net before keeper Ben Williams knew anything.
The ecstasy shown by those in red and white hoops, both on and off the pitch, was in contrast to the gloom in green. The tension levels ratcheted as the rain came down. Hamilton, again, were playing the football and looking confident. Hibernian, so depressingly often this season, were reduced to hoofing the ball clear and hanging on to what they had.
Midway through the first half, Accies almost doubled their lead, and levelled the tie, when Louis Longridge had his low, goal bound effort saved by the foot of Williams. The jangling nerves from the Hibees faithful turned to anger as they told their side, Terry Butcher, and chairman Rod Petrie exactly what they thought, turning the Edinburgh air blue.
As the boos rang around Easter Road, Tony Andreu's flashing drive hit the Hibs side netting, after Ziggy Gordon had earlier headed a good chance wide. The home side's only real effort on goal in the first half was a Jason Cummings shot inside the area blocked just short of the line from an excellent Liam Craig corner.
It much the same in the second half. Hamilton Academical were playing all the football, creating all the chances, while Hibernian were stymied by fear, reduced to direct and not particularly accurate play. Jason Scotland almost levelled matters two minutes after the break, shake a couple of defenders off before his low shot was superbly palmed away by Ben Williams.
As time ticked away, though, the tension and frustration became a deathly hush as Hibernian, slowly but surely, hung on longer and longer. Losing 1-0 on the day was fine. 2-1 on aggregate they would snap anyone's hands off if offered it. As normal time became injury time, though, Hibs boss Butcher belied the tension and fear running throughout leaf. Bizarrely he windmilled his arms towards the players and supporters to induce a rabble rousing reaction.
What happened, though, was that the ex England World Cup star gave the impression he had run out of ideas and confidence in his side and was doing something, anything, so long as it was just something. All of a sudden, with seconds left, there was indeed a galvanising effect.
To Hibs horror, however, it came from Hamilton. With just 10 seconds left, that man Jason Scotland cut the ball back and 20+ goal man Tony Andreu deservedly brought parity to the proceedings. The few thousand that made the trip from Strathclyde, like the team, went berserk. They could taste promotion in the sodden Edinburgh air.
It felt almost inevitable that this would go to penalties. Fraught with tension, with both sides knowing one mistake could cost them either their dreams or sanctuary from their nightmares, Hamilton continued to play the football, but without that cutting edge.
And so it came to pass at 6pm on a Sunday evening. 9 months of league football and three weeks of tension packed play-offs had come down to five penalties each in the rain. This was drama. This was spectacle. This was life. This was football.
I've always had this theory that the first team to miss a penalty in the shoot-out loses three times out of four. It may not be true, of course, but when Easter Road sighed and tears began to drop as Kevin Thomson's kick was easily saved by Kevin Cuthbert, the confidence that had clearly disappeared from the Leith outfit was flowing through this scribe.
All through the season, though, and even throughout the play-offs, those instincts had been somewhat off course when it came to the East End of Edinburgh. Grant Gillespie, Tony Andreu, Mikael Antione Curier and Jason Scotland all dispatched their spot-kicks with ease.
At 4-3 down, the whole of Hibernian's season, and the club's future well-being, was placed upon the shoulders of one of their few bright lights of the season, teenager Jason Cummings. It's not a responsibility that is given to anyone lightly, let alone someone with such inexperience as he. Cuthbert predictably saved the penalty. Hamilton Academical were promoted. Hibernian were relegated. Cruel but that's football.
As the Accies players and supporters celebrated in one crazy crush at one end of the rapidly deserting Easter Road, player boss Alex Neil paid tribute to his players. "We'll try to strengthen but they'll get their crack because they deserved it for what they managed to do. I thought, over the piece, we were worthy winners. I said it after the first game, I've never written this group off."
In stark contrast, though, Terry Butcher was in a sombre mood, unable to explain how things had gone so wrong since leaving second placed Inverness Caley Thistle to take up the reins at Easter Road. "It's the worst ever. I must give Hamilton full credit, they can certainly play, and they did today. It's my darkest day in football. I'm extremely angry, but I'll take the responsibility because we had time to put it right. It was like watching a car crash today, to be honest. And it's been like that in the last few months."
It was something that was not lost on the home supporters. The atmosphere all afternoon had been muted, nervous, tense, like a powder keg waiting to go off. After the match, it did. Chants against Terry Butcher and Rod Petrie amongst the protesting masses became more vociferous by the second, until the more sinister and dark "If you don't come out then we're coming in" was sung with fury and venom.
So it's darkness rather than sunshine over Leith. In contrast, however, it's sunshine all the way at New Douglas Park. Hamilton's support may be low on numbers, but they are high on enthusiasm, and the club is run strictly on a 'cut the cloth accordingly' basis. With the extra revenue that increased attendances next year will bring, and three of Scotland's major hitters playing in the league below them, Accies can go into 2014-15 with every confidence that they mix it with their top teams.
Last word, on such a momentous day, has to go to Alex Neil. "The bottle was shown all season."
Right down to the final kick.
Hibernian 0, Hamilton Academical 2
(after extra time, 2-2 on aggregate. Hamilton Academical won 4-3 on penalties).