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An unwilling assassin but Canning will pull trigger

TRYING to estimate the size of the gap between the bottom of the SPFL Premiership and the top of the Championship has always been a hypothetical science.

Hamilton were just pipped to the title by Dundee but Martin Canning still believes his side have a big chance of reaching the top flight. Picture: SNS
Hamilton were just pipped to the title by Dundee but Martin Canning still believes his side have a big chance of reaching the top flight. Picture: SNS

Until now.

At New Douglas Park tomorrow the second-best team from the second tier, Hamilton Academical, will take on the second-worst team from the top division in the first of a two-legged play-off to decide which of the sides will have the honour of playing in next season's Premiership.

Hibs, in fact, actually accrued the fewest points in the top tier in the campaign just concluded, only spared the automatic relegation spot by the 15-point handicap dished out to Hearts for entering administration. What will surely be an anxious, testing two games against Hamilton, however, may not seem much like respite.

Martin Canning, the dependable, Hamilton centre-half who was briefly on Hibs' books, succintly summed up the difference between the two teams before they meet on Hamilton's plastic pitch tomorrow night: this is a final where only one team wants to be there. The prize for Hamilton is promotion back to the top division for the first time since 2011. In player-manager Alex Neil's first full season in charge, they came ever so close to going up automatically, falling a goal short of pipping Dundee to the title. They are a team with all the momentum, having lost just one of their last 15 matches and having just defeated Falkirk over two legs to get to this stage.

Hibs, in contrast, are motivated primarily by the fear of an uncertain future should they lose the play-off. A season in the Championship with Hearts and Rangers would be entertaining, and no doubt lucrative, but there is every chance it would not be merely a one-year stay. Theirs is a season that began poorly under Pat Fenlon then nosedived further under Terry Butcher. They have not won any of their previous 13 matches, and only once since beating Hearts in the derby on January 2. Their fans will no doubt travel in vast numbers to Hamilton tomorrow evening but, presumably, it is not an occasion they or the players will be particularly looking forward to.

"Hibs won't want to be in this situation," said Canning. "We were desperate to be playing in this tie and they will probably be gutted they are in it. So for us it's a great occasion, while for them it's something they could do without.

"It is a bit of a surprise to see Hibs involved in it because they are a big club. But you see it in every league, whether it's the Premier League in England or up here, that no-one is too big to be in trouble. If you get into that run of form which Hibs have had, then it's difficult to turn it around. So for us, it's a great opportunity to play a big club and, hopefully, show how good we can be.

"I think we've proved we're a good side and we'll carry that belief forward. They are a big club - a bigger club than us. But in terms of 11 boys we believe in ourselves and we'll be going all out to win this. We've approached every single game this season to try to win it and I'd imagine it will be the same on Wednesday night. We will be in their faces from the first minute and look to make it as difficult for them as possible. We are all about trying to go forward, creating chances and scoring goals."

Canning had an almost blink-and-you-missed it spell with Hibs six years ago. He signed a 16-month deal in the February after being released by Gretna as their financial situation worsened, but would stay only until the end of August when he asked to be freed due to a lack of first-team football. There was a reluctance on Hibs' part to let him go but Canning eventually got his way. Despite featuring only 12 times, there is no lasting resentment about his time at Easter Road.

"I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Hibs, even though it was brief," recalled the 32 year-old. "I got on great with everyone at the club. It was just that I wanted to play every week. No-one is guaranteed to play every week, of course, but I wanted to know that if I was doing my job properly, I'd be in the team.

"At the time, they had Rob Jones and Chris Hogg who were both doing really well in central defence - the captain and the vice-captain. So it was difficult for me to displace them. I found myself playing right-back most of the time, which wasn't what I wanted to do. I had three or four options to leave and play elsewhere, to teams who wanted me in the position I wanted to play. That was the reason I left. I had a bit of a battle with the manager and chairman of Hibs at the time to get out.

"Thankfully for me, they did let me go so I could play regular football at Hamilton. They realised how important it was for me. I did enjoy my time there and had a lot of respect for everyone at the club. But I'm at Hamilton now and obviously want to go and do a job for them in this play-off final."

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