THE prospect of promotion continues to be waved in front of Hamilton Academical.
A team which finished second in the SPFL Championship has spent the past week pawing at the ground, with the Falkirk Stadium to be transformed tonight into a bull ring and the first leg of a play-off semi-final a sort of corrida de toros involving Hamilton and a side they have beaten three times this season already.
Having missed out on the title following the final league match, Hamilton await the opportunity to make another charge at the top flight. It has been incumbent on Alex Neil to temper his side since that win, though he is likely to have resisted any urge to tell them all to count to 10.
Memories of the club's emphatic league finish are still vivid, when a relegated Morton side were beaten mercilessly in a 10-2 defeat in Lanarkshire, and will inform Neil's approach to a meeting with Falkirk tonight. The result was inflicted by a Hamilton team missing three first-team regulars - Neil was also absent as a result of suspension - and the player-manager must consider whether or not to recall them in the play-offs.
A tilt at the title has not left Hamilton off balance, though, and Neil has been able to speak confidently of his side's chances of progressing to a two-legged final with Hibernian. Hamilton will play away from home this evening with the second leg scheduled for Sunday, while details of previous fixtures with Falkirk were also repeated yesterday. The clubs have met twice since the turn of the year and Hamilton drew away and won 3-1 at New Douglas Park. A repeat of those results this week will take the club a step closer to the Premiership.
Progress might sound simple enough but not all of the Lanarkshire side's preparations have been so straightforward. "This is probably the most difficult team selection I've had since taking over," said Neil, who was speaking after his club were awarded a £500 bursary from the Weatherseal Community Heroes Fund. "As you can imagine, winning 10-2 with four regulars out of the team has made it difficult. I've had 10 days to think about it, and it's taken all of those 10 days."
That was not intended as an epigram; the players who dismissed Morton earlier this month have shown unyielding confidence in training but the demands of a play-off might still be deferred to recognised starters. "After that game you would maybe think the manager won't change it and if I'm not in the team then I've nobody to blame but myself for getting suspended," said Darian MacKinnon, the midfielder.
Neil was inclined to criticise himself too, since the suspension he received following a red card against Dumbarton will last until the first leg of a prospective tie with Hibs. His punishment extends to the technical area and the 32-year-old is not allowed to speak to his players during the final hour before kick-off.
"There have been two games this season when I have been in the stand and we have won both. I'll maybe just stay up there," added Neil wryly.