Top Championship and focus on community
3 April ~ Almost 20,000 will attend Raith Rovers v Rangers in Sunday's Ramsdens Cup final. Yet the most important game in Scotland this weekend takes place at a ground holding just 6,000. On Saturday, second-placed Dundee visit Hamilton Academical, currently leading the Scottish Professional Football League Championship. It's only on goals scored but Accies occupy the automatic promotion spot. A dozen bigger or more illustrious clubs lower down the pyramid could cite a cash boost Accies received last summer, but their split of James McCarthy's £13 million move to Everton hasn't changed Hamilton's frugal, local ethos
Accies negotiated a sell-on clause when selling Republic of Ireland midfielder McCarthy to Wigan in 2009. They reaped something approaching his original £1.2m fee when he moved again last August. But by then Accies had already won all five league games and a cup tie at Premiership Kilmarnock. Chairman Les Gray promised no McCarthy cash would go on big signings or completing the two-sided stadium.
Their new synthetic pitch, plus refurbishment of the New Douglas Park floodlights and dressing rooms would be paid for. The remainder would finance a debt-free top-flight return, primarily through developing Scottish talent. Refusing to splurge on players or stadium insulted the Scottish Premier League's (SPL) self-image but kept Accies alive while the SPL crashed. It's a policy borne of harsh experience.
In 1970, with debts mounting and Clyde eyeing their ground, Accies briefly resigned from the league. They sold their home to Sainsbury's supermarkets in 1994 but wrangling over the proceeds and the local council condemning old Douglas Park ensured seven years ground-sharing, in Coatbridge and Glasgow. Income plummeted and unpaid players even went on strike. Failure to fulfil a 1999-2000 fixture cost Accies 15 points and forced relegation to the Third Division.
It seemed post-war Hamilton Academical would remain famous only for knocking Rangers out the 1986-87 Scottish Cup. But a supporters' group determined to bring the club home polled better than the Liberal Democrats in a 1999 by-election and New Douglas Park opened in 2001. One side has a five-a-side pitch and a 600-seat marquee, one end the exterior of Sainsubry's and a training pitch. But the two developed stands, which include retail outlets and offices, offer perfect sightlines.
In 2008 Accies reached the top flight for the first time in 20 years. The SPL, formed in 1997, insisted they bring their seated capacity up to 6,000 (thus the marquee) and install under-soil heating, beneath their all-weather pitch. Accies could only afford to re-lay with grass. The SPFL replaced the SPL last summer, just as the synthetic pitch vital to Accies' community-based infrastructure was reinstated. The 2009 scrapping of the Scottish Premier Reserve League denied youngsters the chance to learn alongside experienced pros but at Hamilton this happens in the first team, under 32-year-old player-manager Alex Neil.
Glasgow-born McCarthy played first-team football at 15. His FA Cup-winning Wigan team-mate, James McArthur – a Scotland regular – captained Accies at 20 and carries a similar sell-on clause. With Scotland a bargain basement for English clubs, Accies' cutest move was selling neither player to an Old Firm already plundering fans from their catchment area. Cuter yet would be remaining one division above Rangers and their four-sided, UEFA-approved stadium. Alex Anderson