AN operation on a torn stomach muscle has forced Alex Neil to take a small step back from Hamilton Academical's pursuit of promotion.
It has afforded the club's player-manager a different view of the season, since he had not originally expected a squad formed largely by inexperience and youthful endeavour to find themselves in a title race in the SPFL Championship. Hamilton will travel to Dundee tomorrow aware that a win will restore them to the top of the league table.
It would seem possible to become affected by the result since matches between the two clubs now appear particularly significant. Hamilton lost at home to the Dens Park side in November and have since lost the lead in the title race, with the clubs now separated by one point.
Loading article content
They were already considered to be kept apart by comparative experience and Dundee yesterday confirmed the signing of the former Hearts striker Christian Nade. The 29-year-old has been a peripheral figure in Scottish football after he trained with East Fife earlier this season without a proposed deal at the League 1 side coming to fruition but he could make his debut tomorrow in place of injured pair Craig Beattie and Peter MacDonald.
The Frenchman has shoulders broad enough to bear Dundee's growing ambitions of automatic promotion, but Neil has been impressed more by the strength of character shown by his younger players. "We're currently well ahead of where I thought we might be, there's no question of that," said the Hamilton player-manager, who intends to return to competitive action before the end of the season.
"We set our standards at the end of last season, when we won six of our last eight games and lost just one. Back then we had the luxury of Steven May playing for us. He was the division's top scorer so to do what we've done without someone scoring 27 goals per season has been some achievement. By and large, though, our boys have handled it really well, mentally and physically.
"Your ambitions change during the course of the season - if you find yourself in the top half of the table then you want to go up and, if you're at the bottom, then you want to stay up. I'll be disappointed if we don't stay in the top four now but our goal is to push on."