“There can be only one”
So said Sean Connery in classic eighties hit Highlander, a Hollywood film with distorted links between contemporary western society and ancient Scottish culture. With Eilean Donan Castle stunningly captured in the most oppressive of atmospheres, Connery’s tortuous swordfight with his opponent ultimately ended in his own decapitation – a blessing to those had to witness the Scot bizarrely assume the role of a katana-wielding Spaniard, Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez. There is a parallel with the SPFL Championship title race, no matter how tenuous: there can indeed be only one champion. But in this instance the challengers could not kill off one another, leaving us with more drama to unfold over the next month.
It was hoped that the weekend’s fixture at New Douglas Park between Championship leaders Hamilton Academical and Dundee would go some way to providing the definitive outcome on who will win the league. From the soupy cloud cover and dim light in the early afternoon through to the beginning of the match, the Accies’ stadium seemed ominously set for the most important league fixture of the weekend. In the sense of delivering a melodramatic set-piece to a demanding audience, it didn’t wholly disappoint, but while Highlander could induce an incredulous feeling from what was just watched, there was a lack of season-defining quality in a title contest full of attrition.
The match was evenly balanced for the most part and the draw was an equitable outcome on reflection. Dundee led through Martin Boyle’s possibly offside goal on 36 minutes, but if anything it was the Accies who were forcing the slightly better play until then.
With every parry brought a counter, which would be defended with strength and countered again with laborious play in between, ad infinitum
Indeed, the sides were cancelling each other out to a considerable extent. With every parry brought a counter, which would be defended with strength and countered again with laborious play in between, ad infinitum. There was a lack of space between defence and attack for players to force their opponents on the back foot through craft or technique, which compounded the reluctance to do anything else but launch the ball forward from the backline to force a mistake from the other side. For the first half hour, the match was cagey, which wasn’t helped by the two teams matching up almost with perfect symmetry.
The visitors changed their line-up from the defeat at home to Falkirk last week. The 4-4-2 set-up against the Bairns was altered to both better protect the space in front of the defence and to quickly support Peter MacDonald in attack. Regular central midfielders Gavin Rae and Kevin McBride held the 4-2-3-1 together, with Jim McAlister deployed by Paul Hartley as the central attacking midfielder between Martin Boyle and Nicky Riley.
McAlister had arguably the most important role in Dundee’s line-up: to link the play between defence and attack; and to make sure Hartley didn’t end with a broken team. McAlister’s cause wasn’t helped by his side’s 4-2-3-1 being matched by Accies’ 4-1-4-1-cum-4-3-3 shape, with Ali Crawford sitting at the back of midfield in McAlister’s way. Crawford had Darian Mackinnon and Antony Andreu immediately in front of him, who were pitted against Dundee’s Rae and McBride respectively.
The skirmish in midfield was closely contested and the players felt almost too familiar with each other, with very little conceded among the players. McAlister had little opportunity to thrive in the area behind MacDonald, and Dundee’s better moments arrived when bypassing the midfield or attacking down the left flank. Although centre-backs Declan Gallagher and Iain Davidson were comfortable playing between themselves, when the pass had to go forward it went long and MacDonald generally found it a struggle to compete aerially against two defenders much taller than him.
One midfielder who did exceed the others in the first half was Andreu. As the Accies’ most naturally creative player, he occasionally found it difficult to find free space in the final 35 yards of the pitch due to Rae and McBride deliberately sitting deep at the back of Dundee’s midfield, but the Frenchman’s influence was the most telling of all of the match’s players in the first period. His passes were both crisp and well weighted on the deceptively slippy artificial pitch. Twice in the first half he played Jason Scotland towards goal with through passes: the first from which the veteran forward did not have the zest to get beyond the last defender and had to be content with hitting a shot against his marker for a corner kick; the second gave Scotland a clear-cut opportunity in front of the goalkeeper but was ruled offside by an exceptionally late flag from the referee’s assistant.
Opportunities like those arose from long passes from defence or from the ball being churned out of the midfield processor with a lucky bounce. There was no great build-up play from either team. Andreu’s counterpart McAlister’s best moment of the first half came from a Davidson long punt that unsettled Accies centre-back Jesus Garcia Tena, with the bouncing ball on the edge of the box inviting Dundee’s attacking midfielder to half-volley but who sliced the ball firmly wide of goal. For Hamilton, it was obvious not for the first time this season that they missed player-manager Alex Neil at the back of midfield: Crawford’s vision and passing precision fell below the unused substitute’s standard, despite earnest application.
Although they posed little goal threat for 20 minutes before it, the moments after the half hour mark highlighted the danger that Dundee could cause. With long balls directed towards MacDonald and occasionally Boyle proving only the odd moment of nervousness among the home defence, Nicky Riley was picked out high on the left flank – the winger had the composure to chest the ball, cut infield and bring others into play. The move culminated with Gary Irvine slicing a shot well wide, but before then the Dees had gone nearly ten minutes without having the ball stick in the home third of the pitch; it was a minor success worth trying again.
Despite strong suggestions of Boyle’s bending run starting from an off-side position, the first blood was on Hamilton
And that is exactly what happened a minute later. With Willie Dyer providing the overlap, Riley was afforded the licence to cut infield into space that McAlister (and consequently Crawford) vacated, before being fouled in a potential goal-scoring position for MacDonald. MacDonald’s shot from the freekick was weak, but from the same passage of play Dyer’s cross was allowed to go through to McBride, who was still in the area from the earlier dead ball. McBride’s astute header found Boyle unmarked beyond the Accies defence – despite strong suggestions of Boyle’s bending run starting from an off-side position, the first blood was on Hamilton.
Dundee earned some confidence from that and went into the tunnel at half-time the stronger side. McBride and Rae began to push up the pitch, which helped McAlister out considerably, but MacDonald’s supply was still only coming from long balls – his acrobatic effort after bettering Martin Canning to a bouncing ball went narrowly over the crossbar, which amounted to one of the best opportunities he salvaged from a match bereft of clear-cut chances for Dundee. Calling Dundee the better team overall would be disingenuous, however, because on the balance of play from that point there still didn’t look to be a clear winner.
Nonetheless, the challenge was with Neil to alter something for the Accies to get them back into the match. The second half strategy didn’t immediately change, but Louis Longridge and James Keatings switched flanks. The move would bring the best out of Longridge, who spent more time in the first half tracking Dyer than being able to get behind the left-back. It didn’t work out for Keatings though, who preferred to come in to shoot from the left and whose shooting and crossing on the right was extremely wasteful. Keatings’s best contribution was a smart lay-off at the edge of the box for MacKinnon, whose shot would have cleared the goal twice over.
The Accies were able to take the game to Dundee again and the visitors were turning over possession at a concerning rate, which was allowing Keatings to have these opportunities. Riley was the best outlet for Dundee as the player who could control the ball in tight areas and protect it for long enough to allow the defence to squeeze up. Riley’s play brought about a fierce shot from Boyle at the other side, from a shallow angle towards Cuthbert’s near post that was parried out of play.
Nonetheless, the Accies were able to exert more pressure, with Longridge repeatedly getting the better of Gary Irvine. A resulting corner had Canning prod the ball over the bar from six yards during a goalmouth stramash, and although Dundee’s MacDonald had a left-footed shot drift just beyond the far post against the break of play it was Hamilton who looked more likely to score the next goal.
Keatings was taken off for Mickael Antoine-Curier, with Neil then preferring a 4-1-3-2 and switching MacKinnon with Crawford around in midfield. Having two up front tested Dundee’s centre-backs (with Adam Cummins already having replaced Davidson), and Crawford combined with Scotland a couple of times to put the striker through on goal – or at least he would have been through on goal if he had the legs to break out of a canter. It was no surprise to see Andrew Ryan replace him with ten minutes to go.
In those rare moments Hamilton looked like a genuine quality team who could open up any side at this level
Were Accies good enough to win the game at this point? Probably not. They showed occasional moments of quality and those normally transpired when Tena had the courage to carry the ball forward, rather then leave the onus on Canning to find a short pass or lump the ball forward towards Curier – in those rare moments Hamilton looked like a genuine quality side who could open up any side at this level, but those were only fleeting glimpses of the team’s potential. Dundee were keen on the counter all the while and Kevin Cuthbert had a trying moment against Boyle who was through on goal after a cute first-time MacDonald touch behind the defence.
Just after MacDonald was subbed off for Craig Beattie with 20 minutes left, Accies equalised. Longridge’s clever spin took out two players at the left side of the penalty area and Curier made some kind of connection to the cross with the side of his temple for a close-range finish. When Scotland was subbed off nine minutes later, Accies returned to the 4-3-3 shape that they started the match with, while Dundee went to a loose 4-2-2-2 with Boyle getting closer to Beattie and McAlister supporting from the inside channels with Ryan Conroy. Curier appeared to thrive as a sole front man and Andreu began to get back into the match a little, as the previous tactical switch sacrificed his influence being outnumbered against Rae and McBride.
The last ten minutes hinted at breaking out into something frantic, possibly something special and something that the season could be remembered for, but nothing materialised to that extent. Dundee’s best efforts in attack were disappointingly hampered by Beattie simply not having the fitness to accomplish anything required of a chief centre-forward, while Dundee’s centre-backs marshalled the Accies front line comfortably enough until the final whistle.
It was a fitting result for two teams who could not provide the killer blow. A win for either side would have been both a psychological and numerical advantage going into the last four matches. With both clubs facing middling-to-lower ranked Championship sides to close out the season, and with the two contenders still sitting on the same points and the same goal difference, a three point lead and a few more goals could have been all of the difference to become the undisputed winners.
Instead, we now could be treated to the closest title race in Scotland’s second tier in seven years. The advent of the play-offs means that winning the Championship isn’t the all-or-nothing scenario that previous years have been, but the nature of the play-offs to the Premiership (with the top-flight side only having two extra matches after the league season rather than four for the Championship runners-up) is such that automatic promotion must be the priority of both clubs. Falkirk are not out of the running and are indeed only four points behind the leaders, but overtaking two clubs to win the league is still an unlikely possibility at this stage.
For Hamilton and Dundee, there can be only one winner at the end of the day. Who it will be is still too close to call.