Hamilton Academical are the feelgood hit of the season; the Sound of Music of Scottish football. If James McCarthy is the child star of this heartwarming production, a cutesy, Castlemilk equivalent of Gretl von Trapp, then James McArthur is unquestionably the captain of the family.

McArthur, 21, is referred to as Auld James' around New Douglas Park, due to the fact he is three years older than Young James'. While the latter has earned rightful plaudits for his swashbuckling style, the former has been a pillar of Hamilton's success with a less spectacular - but arguably more steadfast and resolute - contribution to survival and, as it stands, prosperity in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League.

It is a complementary concoction. McArthur's abundant football qualities are reflective of his personality traits. He is thoughtful, intelligent and articulate in conversation.

He is a Rangers fan who grew up a stone's throw from Barrowfield, Celtic's former training facility in the East End of Glasgow. He endured an unsuccessful adolescence with both the Rangers Boys Club and Rangers Supporters' Club youth team. More recently, his name has been prominent on the recruitment lists of both Rangers and Celtic. On Saturday, he will set about dismantling the reputations of Barry Ferguson and Pedro Mendes when Rangers visit New Douglas Park.

His future may incorporate employment with at least one half of the Old Firm, but for now he is happy to retain an independence of mind, body and spirit; no mean feat in the West of Scotland.

"I was brought up in Barrowfield," he says, "but as a kid I was in love with the game. I hated the Glasgow mentality of meeting someone, usually older than you, and the first thing they would say was what team do you support?' and you'd be expected to say one or the other.

"Obviously it is flattering to have your name mentioned with the Old Firm but I, like everyone else here, am grateful for what Hamilton have done for me by giving me this opportunity."

McArthur was one of the few survivors of Ronnie MacDonald's characteristically combative arrival at New Douglas Park. He inherited a team second-bottom of the second division and dropping, kept just two players from the entire squad - Jim Sherry and McArthur - and set about the most ambitious challenge of a football career that incorporated success against the odds at Knightswood Amateurs, Maryhill Juniors and Clyde.

"I came here from Clyde and the club is unrecognisable to the one I joined," says McArthur. "Ronnie came in, said he wanted to take us into the SPL within five years and has done it in four. At the time, nobody knew what was going to happen, but there has been a sense of something special ever since. For a few boys, this has been their only club and they have grown attached to it. People talk about the dressing room, but ours really is like a gang of friends. We have a laugh together and we work so hard for each other on the pitch. It is a pleasure to be here: we are friends and acquaintances as well as team-mates."

They are particularly fond of the Jameses, both conducting themselves as model professionals on and off the field, like a couple of Osmond brothers. McArthur stayed on at Whitehill Secondary School, in Dennistoun, until sixth year and left with a bunch of Highers, a B in mathematics his proudest academic achievement. He is still handy with numbers. After signing a three-year contract extension at Accies, McArthur eschewed the popular trend of flash car, or 4x4, and instead put his money into a new home in Cambuslang.

"I am not a flashy person, certainly not a show's your money' type," he says. "I put my money towards my future. Football is a short career and I know the perils of being too big for your boots."

He is more likely to spend his Saturday night in a restaurant with McCarthy and Brian Easton than he is to be spotted stumbling out of a Glasgow fleshpot. "We have all made sacrifices," he says. "I am at an age when a lot of people are out drinking and clubbing. I know that if I did that, I couldn't get to where I want to be. The job we are in can be rewarding financially and personally, so I am willing to make that sacrifice."

At 21, he has already played 120 first-team games for Hamilton, having made his debut against Ross County at 17 and, albeit belatedly, has had his talent recognised at under-21 level for Scotland. Far from showing any signs of burn-out, McArthur has thrived in the new surroundings of the SPL. "If you don't play, you won't improve. It is simple," he says. "I hear people talk about burn-out, but what is the point of being a footballer if you are not playing football?

"I feel stronger, better, and more mature for the experience of playing first-team football since I was 17. You learn things like picking up the second ball only by being out there on the pitch, not in training."

Hamilton have learned the hard way. After a riotous start, with back-to-back wins against Dundee United and Inverness, they then endured a 10-game winless streak in the league. Against his principles, Billy Reid revised his expansive game plan and, with the exception of a freakish 7-1 defeat at Ibrox, they have never looked back. They have won six of their last seven games and confidence is such that top-six bonus incentives have been discussed, but only in comical terms designed to keep the players' feet on the ground.

"It is a remarkable run," says McArthur, with an instant caveat. "We are level-headed and know that while we are going well and getting praise, we are still only a few points away from the bottom. It shows the confidence is high, but confidence is only good if you have the ability and belief to go with it.

"We never lost that belief, even through the rough patches, and it will be the same if we go through a rough patch again. We are encouraged to express ourselves and try things, even when the manager has changed the system: that adaptation hasn't affected the belief at all.

"There have been unique learning experiences all season. For 50 minutes at our own ground, we played really well against Rangers, and might even have been the better team, but lost 3-1. For 50 minutes at Ibrox we did well, conceded a penalty, had a man sent off then Rangers seemed to score with every shot. Two similar games for 50 minutes and two totally different results, so you learn that, especially against the Old Firm, you cannot lose concentration for a second or they will make you pay."

McArthur and his colleagues have paid their dues but despite the praise and the publicity, loyalty is at the centre of Hamilton's success. "Everyone is up front with each other," he says. "The club will not stand in the way of anyone bettering their careers and the players would never dream of going behind the club's back or moaning to get a move. We are all grateful for the opportunity we have had."

The cast will stay together until the encore, regardless of the plot twists ahead.