PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: TENTH
LAST SEASON: 10th, 33pts
NOTABLE INS: Blair Alston (St. Johnstone), Will Collar (Brighton & Hove Albion), Brian Easton (St. Johnstone), Markus Fjortoft (Southern United), Owain Fon Williams (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Kyle Gourlay (Dundee), Johnny Hunt (Stevenage), Ciaran McKenna (Falkirk), David Moyo (St. Albans City), Korede Adedoyin (Everton, loan)
NOTABLE OUTS: Ziggy Gordon (Central Coast Mariners), James Keatings (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Gary Woods (Oldham Athletic), Tony Andreu (Coventry City, end of loan), David McMillan (St. Johnstone, end of loan), Dougie Imrie (retired), Tom Taiwo (retired), Matthew Kilgallon, Jacob Marsden, Alex Penny, Lennard Sowah, Delphin Tshiembe
LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out):
This is the sixth straight season I've had to write a Hamilton Accies season preview. In the first four I predicted they'd come bottom, and last year I had them finishing eleventh. I wasn't alone in my thinking. And each time Accies have collectively given the finger to the likes of me by staying up.
How they've done it is hard to say. Their points totals in recent years have been dreadful - 35,33 and 33 in the last three campaigns. They never seem to score enough goals nor keep enough out. They're the MC Escher of football teams. It's impossible and yet here they are.
And over time my feelings towards them have moved from considerable annoyance at their unambitious and unpalatable style of play to increasing (albeit grudging) respect at the fact that whilst clubs like Dundee United, Dundee, Partick Thistle, Inverness and others languish outside the top flight, Hamilton have avoided that fate.
The question now is whether things take a different direction with a new man in the hotseat. Well, I say 'new' but Brian Rice has been Head Coach since January. It was probably true that the only way was up at that point, but Rice guided Accies clear of relegation. He actually managed only four wins and four draws in sixteen games, so it tells you something about the state they were in that this was a marked improvement on the final days of Martin Canning.
But despite the change of boss it's been a pretty typical Accies summer. Their budget remains a fraction of even the mid-table Premiership sides so the signings have been the usual motley crew of Premiership castoffs, Championship wannabes, kids released from English under 23 sides and the odd unknown from non-league.
The hope is that Rice will do a superior job of moulding them together. As assistant boss at Falkirk, Hibs and Caley Thistle he was highly respected as a training ground coach. Mind you, the way some of the new boys have been talking you'd think he's the Scottish Guardiola. Certainly though it's reasonable to expect that Accies will be better organized than they were at any time in the Canning era.
Do they have enough quality though?
They haven't lost all that much, at least. Ziggy Gordon was a regular in defence but hadn't hit the heights expected of him and he is replaceable. Goalkeeper Gary Woods had quietly excelled but Rice might have found a gem in Owain Fon Williams, largely frozen out for two years at Caley Thistle because of his wages. The Welshman struggled when ICT were relegated before that but played that whole year with a back problem and is a far better keeper than many realize.
In front of him it looks like it'll be a back three, though it may be hard to find a competent combination. Alex Gogic missed most of last season after a knee injury but if he's back to 100% he should be a capable performer; however he also looked like the best (or least-bad) option in defensive midfield in the League Cup games.
Brian Easton is also not long back from an extended layoff and seems more likely to be used on the left side of that three rather than as a left-back. Ciaran McKenna flashed some potential at Falkirk last season but is really raw after spending his formative years in the USA. Markus Fjortoft is a typical Hamilton 'take a flyer on a guy who won't cost us much if he isn't up to it' move. And Shaun Want has shown nothing to suggest he's going to hack it as a Premiership player in the short- or long-term.
In theory, the standard at wing-back is a lot higher. Aaron McGowan certainly came onto a game in the second half of last season. Frustratingly Scott McMann still hasn't lived up to the billing he was given as a youngster by Alex Neil all those years ago. Now 23, he really needs to become consistent. The more experienced Johnny Hunt will not have moved up from Stevenage just to be a backup.
In midfield it seems certain there will be a place for Darian MacKinnon, though the captain, 34 in October, does appear to be slowing down a little. The other two positions may be up for grabs. Will Collar, signed from Brighton, should fill the most defensive role though he's not been sighted so far. Blair Alston was let go by St. Johnstone because he influenced games only sporadically, so Rice needs to get the best out of him if Accies are to create chances.
But if Rice is willing to give youth a try he can call on Ross Cunningham, Lewis Smith, Reegan Mimnaugh and Ronan Hughes in this area. Cunningham was particularly impressive in July, scoring four League Cup goals; three were penalties but it is encouraging that the 21 year old took on such responsibility. Smith is more attack-minded and could be deployed in the number ten role if Rice opted for one up top in some games. There's also Scott Martin who was something of a marquee signing by Canning's standards last summer but who seems out of favour.
There is however a dearth of natural wingers in the squad which will leave Rice short of a plan B if things aren't going well. Steven Boyd, Mickel Miller and new signing David Moyo can all play wide if necessary but they would prefer to be through the middle. Miller was great in the first half of last season but is a rare case of a player regressing under Rice; however he was given a new deal in the summer so it seems reasonable to assume the boss has faith in him.
Up front though he's likely to go with two of Marios Ogkmpoe, George Oakley and Steve Davies. Ogkmpoe is the battering ram, Davies is the best natural finisher but doesn't do enough to link play, and Oakley is reasonably strong, reasonably quick and okay in front of goal but doesn't really do anything especially well. If one was to break through this season, I'd pick Ogkmpoe - the Greek did well to come back from an ACL injury in the spring and has looked sharp in the League Cup. He looks like he has a point to prove and could reward Hamilton's faith in him.
The target as always is survival but this might be the first time that the odds of that are in their favour. First, the coaching has improved. Second, there are other teams in the division who look unsettled and lost at the moment. Hamilton and their fans would probably prefer that they were written off again, but there's a chance that this could be a less stressful campaign than the last few.
THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Owain Fon Williams, Ryan Fulton, Kyle Gourlay
Defenders: Brian Easton, Markus Fjortoft, Alex Gogic, Johnny Hunt, Aaron McGowan, Ciaran McKenna, Scott McMann, George Stanger, Shaun Want
Midfielders: Blair Alston, Will Collar, Ross Cunningham, Ronan Hughes, Darian MacKinnon, Scot Martin, Reegan Mimnaugh, Lewis Smith
Forwards: Korede Adedoyin, Steven Boyd, Steve Davies, Mickel Miller, David Moyo, George Oakley, Marios Ogkmpoe
THE BEST XI?
Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.