From The Sunday Times....
Whatever happens in Paisley tomorrow night, Hamilton Academical have a plan in place for the future. Despite the smallest budget and fan base in the Premiership, they’ve become a club resistant to relegation in the five years since promotion in 2014 via the playoffs at Hibs’ expense. While rivals falter, the Accies seem to pull a big result out whenever its been required to finish seventh, 10th, 11th and 10th over the last four seasons.
They’re on course for another 10th place, with only a draw required at St Mirren to secure their top-flight status, so the appointment of Brian Rice as head coach on January 31 was a sound move. The 55-year-old had been at St Mirren, but became surplus to requirements after Oran Kearney’s revamp there, having initially assisted Alan Stubbs.
It only takes a few minutes in Rice’s amiable company to appreciate why he’s such a popular figure with players, particularly the younger ones. He cites Bill Shankly’s maxim that “without natural enthusiasm for the game, you’re nothing” and appears to live by it, too, promising Hamilton will play on the front foot tomorrow night.
Regardless of whether they avoid the dreaded playoffs with that approach, the club have decided to put their future in the hands of a “vibrant” youth system that puts many other Scottish clubs to shame. Its been particularly fertile in producing midfielders such as James McCarthy and James McArthur and, more recently, Greg Docherty and Lewis Ferguson, while 17-year-old Reegan Mimnaugh maintains that tradition in the current team.
Rice will throw more teenagers into the first team next season, whether it’s in the Premiership or Championship. “I came into the job with my eyes open, had a good discussion with the board,” he explains. “They know how I want to see a club run, what type of players, what age group, and it’s putting that into the model here. Martin [Canning, his predecessor] did an outstanding job keeping the club in this division, especially with the players he lost. He obviously had to get players in to make up for that, but the time has maybe come to take a step back again and get back to what Hamilton are renowned for — producing players. I see that as my remit, as much as keeping the team in the league and winning on Saturdays. It’s something I love, it’s my passion.”
The key is to stick with a talented youngster, not discard them after one poor performance in the first team, when they’ve perhaps been overawed by the occasion. “They might be a bit shy, take some time to adjust, but bear with them. I found that through the years with the likes of Scott Arfield and all the young lads who came through at Falkirk, Ryan Christie at Inverness. Stick with them because that’s the heartbeat of the club. They’re the future.”
Rice would clearly prefer that potential to be realised in the Premiership, however, with its higher profile and regular diet of televised matches, than the alternative. “I want to be in the Premiership with these boys. It will be very difficult, we know that, but it’s not a short-term plan. It’s to build a team. One or two may go because of their performances, I hope so, then I need to replace them again. It’s something I’ve looked at for a long time. I don’t want to go into a club and just be there to survive. I want it to be something I can build, a bit like we did at Falkirk, so when we walk away or have to leave, there’s a structure in place.
“I don’t want a relegation, of course I don’t, but this is not about me. I’m 55 years old, my CV is out of the window as far as I’m concerned. This is about me giving other people the opportunity to make a career in the game. This is about Hamilton and the future of Hamilton. If we go down — if — then nothing changes. The philosophy remains the same. We build a youthful squad.”
If Hamilton get the point required tomorrow, the aim will be to avoid the annual battle against the drop next season. “My goal is to not be in this position fighting relegation every season. We want to get away from being people’s No 1 picks for relegation. I’ve done it myself about who’s going down in the English Premier League, you look at who’s got the smallest budget, but Leicester won the league but didn’t have the biggest budget.”
He argues Hamilton should be “the hub of the community” surrounding the club. “At Falkirk, it was brilliant to see all the teams training, all the parents and kids with their Falkirk gear on. That’s not there anymore and, although I wouldn’t have a go at anyone, you need that. Hamilton’s got that and we’ll never get away from it.”