RESULTS last weekend gave Hamilton Academical a shot in the arm in their pursuit of the SPFL Championship title.
A defeat by Dumbarton yesterday can be likened more to a bullet in the foot as the Lanarkshire side lost ground in the table and were left limping into their final match of the campaign.
That will be against a relegated Morton team, but the title race can no longer be won on the New Douglas Park pitch alone since Dundee are two points clear, with a match against Dumbarton all that stands in their way.
The arithmetic at the top of the Championship is plain; another defeat next weekend will cost Hamilton the title. There was a moment yesterday when they appeared to lose it altogether as player-manager Alex Neil was sent off for a headbutt on Dumbarton midfielder Mark Gilhaney, the home side taking advantage to score twice in the final 10 minutes.
Neil will now be made to relinquish his place in midfield for the visit of Morton. "It was a coming together. We both went to get the ball and he's put his head into me and I've put my head into him," he said. "He's made the most of it. I can't protect myself as I shouldn't have done it, but I certainly don't think there was enough contact for him to go down the way he did."
Dumbarton's four goals were scored with enough conviction to topple the visitors. The first came after 32 minutes when Scott Agnew's low free kick evaded everyone inside the penalty area and scuttled into the left-hand corner of the net. Bryan Prunty then nudged a header wide and clipped a volley over the crossbar.
Both efforts missed the target, but still bruised a Hamilton side more used to having things their own way. Their last defeat had come on February 8, and was dished out by Dundee.
A loss to Dumbarton could become just as notable, albeit Jason Scotland flirted with a revival by scoring just four minutes from half-time. The 35-year-old striker was the butt of some comic timing while seeking treatment on the sidelines following Dumbarton's goal, his temporary departure announced as a substitution over the PA.
It had been an error in judgment. Mikael Antoine-Curier pulled a shirt on temporarily in the dugout, with Scotland ambling back on to the pitch moments later. It was the same player, but the Trinidadian had returned a new man, collecting an inelegant pass from Martin Canning with one touch and steering a shot low past Jamie Ewings with another.
The goal brought a moment of class, but it would be cancelled after 77 minutes as substitute Colin Nish stuck his head on a cross to put the home side ahead. A similar act from Neil just six minutes later would hurt his side more than it did the hosts.
"I don't think the red card cost us," Neil added. "We should have taken our chances before that. But we didn't and Dumbarton showed they are dangerous."
The Hamilton player-manager was obliged to commend the attacking intent of the part-time side, since he will now rely on it to trip up Dundee on Saturday.
It was perhaps fitting then that Mitch Megginson would stick out a leg after 84 minutes, first to control the ball and then to boot it past goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert.
Substitute Jordan Kirkpatrick stroked the ball into the net three minutes later for Dumbarton's fourth. It will seem a fitting way to sign off the side's last home match this season, with Queen of the South expected to clinch the final play-off spot with a better goal difference. "That's it done and we could only control what happened here. We did that," said Dumbarton boss Ian Murray.
l Championship, page 7