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'We're not looking to survive but to become an established club'

HAMILTON ACADEMICAL have been promoted to the SPFL Premiership.

Hamilton chairman Les Gray celebrates his side's promotion with striker Louis Longridge. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Hamilton chairman Les Gray celebrates his side's promotion with striker Louis Longridge. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

It is a not insignificant piece of news that may have been missed by some amid the relentless deluge of anger, frustration, criticism and, well, schadenfreude that has rained down on Hibernian following their relegation on Sunday night.

Poor Accies, winners of a remarkable two-legged play-off final that ended in that most thrilling of fashions, the penalty shoot-out, have barely been given a second glance.

As they belatedly rose from their beds yesterday morning, bleary-eyed and hoarse of throat after a night of raucous celebrations, that lack of attention didn't seem to bother them one bit. They are accustomed to it by now. Hamilton have never been the most fashionable of clubs with their bijou stadium, shrinking fanbase, workmanlike squad and misfortune of existing in the long shadows cast by near-neighbours Celtic and Rangers. If anything, these factors only serve to make their triumph all the more impressive.

Forget Hibs' failings, what Hamilton have achieved under a player-manager in his first full season and with a group of players largely cultivated from their youth ranks or plucked from unglamorous stations such as Clydebank and Bo'ness United should be regarded as the real story here.

It is a tale of persistence, prudence and planning. While others scramble around trying to put together squads for the forthcoming season, Hamilton already have 24 players under contract. Promotion should earn them in the region of an additional £1.5m on top of their annual budget of around £350,000, but it is not money that will be splurged on exorbitant deals for new signings. Instead, it will be filtered back into the club, used to further oil the youth academy machine that famously once produced talent of the calibre of James McCarthy, James McArthur and Brian Easton. At a club owned and run by shrewd businessmen, it is the only viable path forward.

"I thought we were the best team in the Championship and should have won it," Les Gray, the Hamilton chairman, told Herald Sport. "But it was a good year to get out of the league as, if I'm being honest, I think next year a club like ours would never have got out of it. No chance. So we're glad and excited to be preparing for Premier League football again after a three-year gap.

"We're Hamilton Accies and we're no longer looking up the table at Hearts, Hibs and Rangers. It's Partick Thistle, Ross County, St Mirren, Kilmarnock, Inverness and the rest. For me, I see that as an opportunity. I'm not even thinking of aiming for 10th or the play-off spot. I'm thinking, there's extra money available for finishing seventh or eighth, so why don't we go for that? We're not looking just to survive but to stay there for a few years, get some stability and become an established Premier League club.

"Whether we do that or not will be down to the players. We'll look to strengthen the squad, but the guys who got us there deserve the chance to prove themselves at the top level and they'll get that. We'll also keep trying to bring through the young Scottish kids as that's our passion and we're good at it. That's our philosophy and we won't change that."

This has been quite the first year for Alex Neil. The player-manager's contract has now expired and Hamilton are unsurprisingly keen to keep him on for the journey into the Premiership. Gray recalls hazily some talks on the matter taking place in the early hours of yesterday morning during the promotion party, and more formal discussions will now follow. Next summer will mark a decade since Neil arrived at the club from Mansfield Town and Gray doesn't want to lose him just yet.

"Alex and I have met three or four times [to discuss his contract] and we're ready to sort it out. We just had to wait to see if it would be Plan A or Plan B. He's the man to take us forward, we both know that. Alex has known me for a long time, ever since I put him in charge of the under-17s and the under-19s, and he's done fantastically for us. Of all the guys I've worked with - and I've got more than 100 employees in my company - he's probably the most singular, focused individual I've ever met. He knows what he wants."

Despite this season's success, Hamilton have struggled to draw a crowd, their average attendance around the 1400 mark. Gray admits it is a frustration but doesn't believe it should be used as a stick to beat them with.

"People have been asking, 'what will Hamilton Accies bring to the Premier League?' as they only have X number of fans. But you don't get to the top league because of your fans. You get there because of your players. And they deserve to be there."

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