FOR large parts of the season, more than half the Premiership table were embroiled in a relegation battle, with all bottom seven sides separated by just eight points at the end of February. Partick Thistle secured top flight football for next season by finishing in the top six prior to the 33 game split, leaving the rest to battle it out to avoid dropping into the Championship.
With just three games to go, all the bottom six sides can still go down although things are beginning to look a little clearer as to who are likely to stay up and who still have it all to do in order to avoid the dreaded drop and a nervy two game playoff against one of Falkirk, Dundee United or Morton.
Ross County’s back to back wins over Inverness and Motherwell should see them safe, Kilmarnock only require another victory, possibly even just one more point, to ensure their survival whilst Dundee’s incredible gamble in appointing a pundit as Manager with five games to go looks as though has paid off spectacularly with consecutive away wins. Inverness still look destined for relegation though their win over Accies has given them renewed hope of achieving the great escape.
For Lanarkshire rivals Motherwell and Hamilton Accademical, both sides are still very much in the mix to avoid the drop, separated only by goal difference in 11th and 10th respectively and just four points ahead of Inverness.
This Saturday, the two come head-to-head at New Douglas Park in, arguably, the most important Lanarkshire Derby in history with so much at stake.
Neither side go into the match in inspiring form with both clubs losing their two post-split matches so far, which has allowed Dundee to overhaul them both and bring Inverness that little bit closer in their bid to get off the bottom of the table. A third consecutive defeat for either side could effectively consign them to the playoff position or be looking nervously over their shoulder should Inverness defeat Kilmarnock at the same time.
Motherwell’s predicament is particularly alarming given their back-to-back losses were at home, when a victory in either match could, effectively, have preserved their proud record of having the Third longest stint in the top flight, bettered only by Celtic and Aberdeen. Louis Moult’s goals have dried up and they are too reliant on veterans Scott McDonald, Keith Lasley and Stephen Pearson as the rest of the squad continue to under perform, which sums up the decline in quality of a team who, only three years ago, finished second in the table. Sacking the ever egotistical Mark McGhee was the right move but their decision to promote Steven Robinson as his successor is looking as though it might backfire. Robinson will need his experienced players to help him inspire their underperforming squad to find fire at this critical stage of the season to keep their head above water.
Hamilton, on the other hand, are in a position many pundits expected them to be given they have the lowest budget in the League, in fact they are above where people expected them to be by being outside the bottom two, albeit only by four goals.
They looked as though they were ready to pull away with eight points from four matches before the split, including a first away win of the season at Dens Park, but the defeats by Kilmarnock and Inverness have lured them back into trouble. Unlike Motherwell, they’ve stuck by their Manager Martin Canning, who was not a popular appointment when he succeeded Alex Neil in January 2015 and hasn’t endeared himself to the Accies support ever since. However, if he manages to earn Accies a fourth term in the Premiership for the first time then he’ll, arguably, have achieved his main goal for the season.
Canning will be hoping that talisman Ally Crawford can step up to the mark on Saturday and inspire Accies to a much needed victory to effectively secure their top flight status. Crawford hasn’t been in the same form since coming back from injury earlier in the year but he is a talented player and now could be the right time for him to come into form to help Hamilton survive.
The ingredients are there for a pulsating, nerve-tangling afternoon at New Douglas Park that could have catastrophic consequences for one of these sides come the seasons finale, whether it’d be relegation or the prospect of the playoff against one of the Championship sides. Whilst it is head-scratching that this game has been omitted by the TV bosses for live coverage, there is the prospect of a decent crowd between the two Lanarkshire sides less than a ten minute drive between their respective grounds given the importance of the match.
Come this time next week, it could become much clearer which Lanarkshire rival is likely to have lived to fight another day or to have their top flight status set to life support.