Alex Neil took charge for seven league games at the end of last season, won 5, drew 1 and lost 1 – the loss coming in our previous encounter with Cowdenbeath, when we led 1-0 until a red card for Ryan saw us play more than half the match with ten men and ultimately lose 3-1. The points tally of 16 was a significant contribution to our year’s total of 51 – more than 2 points per game, versus just over 1 point per game for the season up till then.
It was hard to judge Neil as a manager on just those seven games, but the eight so far this season have exceeded them, in terms of points, goals, performances and bravura. Who would exchange Neil’s exuberant Accies for the same group of players who struggled last season under Billy Reid?
Neil himself admirably keeps his feet on the ground. In his post-match interview at Kilmarnock, following our League Cup win, arguably the highlight so far of his time in charge, he said it was all right as long as we are winning. This remains the question mark – football is all about confidence, and what will happen to this young team’s confidence when we lose a couple on the bounce? Not that there’s any sign of that, but over a long season, injuries, suspensions and luck all inevitably play their part.
It is astonishing how much better the team looks, and the credit for that lies chiefly with Alex Neil. I was among those who defended Billy Reid to the last – I felt he deserved it, given his record as Accies' most successful post-war manager – and I feared managerial change could set us back. Neil was a risky appointment, untried and unknown, but he has exceeded all expectations: his fifteen game record in all competitions so far is won 11, drawn 2 and lost 2 – the form of title challenges and cup runs.
Our very young defence looks remarkably settled, with Cuthbert and Canning marshalling the youthful trio of Gordon, Devlin and Hendrie; in the middle, Gillespie, Crawford and McKinnon all look brighter, with Andreu a more than useful addition; and Keatings up front has staked his place. Who misses Stevie May? There suddenly seems to be depth to this squad, and competition for places all over the park. Most significantly, we carry a range of attacking threats that our opponents must fear.
Cowdenbeath might have been more motivated than Accies on the last day of last season – needing a win to stay up, while for us it was about little more than pride, but that will be different this time. Accies will want revenge, and I predict a reasonably comfortable Accies win – perhaps 2-0. With pretty much a full squad to choose from, and in impressive form, that is no less than we now expect.
Congratulations in advance to match mascot Duncan Ryrie.