• Angus McGregor

The Premiership Relegation Battle

Ross County's 3-2 victory over Kilmarnock put the Staggies in the safety zone whilst placing Tommy Wright's side at the bottom of the table and 4 points away from guaranteed safety. The top of the Scottish Premiership seems all but settled right now but the same can't be said for the league's bottom three clubs as we reach the final 6/7 games of the season. Hamilton Accies are currently wedged between the two aforementioned sides in 11th place and make up the trio of teams who will be battling it out to make sure that they are playing in the top flight next season. As the leagues draws closer to culminating, the pressure is really starting to be turned on for these three sides as there is no room for errors or poor form as it this stage of the season, it could be very costly.

The Season So Far

For Hamilton and Ross County, the season has largely went as both teams would have expected due to the size of the club's and having two of the smallest budgets within the league. The Staggies had a bright start to the season, picking up 8 points from a possible 15 in the opening 5 games of the season but have since really struggled to maintain a positive level of form. Since the third week of the season, Ross County have only picked up points in consecutive games on one occasion From late August to Boxing Day, the Staggies went on a very poor run of 1 win in 15 games, a run that would cost former manager Stuart Kettlewell his job with new manager John Hughes in charge for the final two games of that run. Despite the lack of picking up points in successive games, things have improved massively under John Hughes as County's recent results show a great deal of resiliency as they have only lost consecutive games once in 2021. County's current form shows the Highland side trade wins and losses in order with John Hughes picking up 16 of the 29 points assembled this season in his 3+ months in charge. Particular highlights for Hughes' reign come in the form of impressive home victories against Aberdeen (4-1) and Celtic (1-0) as well as a 2-0 away victory against Hibs.

Accies had a very poor start to the season despite the odd impressive victory dotted around with 10 losses from the first 13 league games. Brian Rice was under a lot of pressure as Hamilton looked to be in a dire state, made even worse by the club's performances in the Betfred Cup with losses to League 2 sides Annan Athletic and Stranraer. A run of form from October to November saw Hamilton lose 5 out of 6 league games, conceding an astonishing 21 goals in those 6 games. Accies did have a lot of issues during the opening months of the season's with the size of their squads, falling victim to many injuries as well as Covid ravaging the Accies squad. These reasons are perhaps why Accies gave manager Brian Rice an extended period of time to turn things around. Hamilton's run in 2021 has been very similar to Ross County's, also only losing consecutive games once this year. What will be more concerning for Accies is that they aren't picking up enough wins as 2021 shows only two victories out of 11 games, both against Motherwell. Brian Rice's side currently only have 1 win in their last 10 games but also only one loss in their last 6, showing that if Accies are to move away from the relegation zones, they need to start converting these results into wins.

Kilmarnock have had a very poor season, obviously most indicative of their current bottom place positioning in the league table. Last season Killie were in 8th place when the league was called 30 games into the season with a point tally of 33 points, 8 more points than Killie have this season with two fewer games played. Killie have had a complete drop off this season as they picked up two points from the first 5 games of the season, one of these being a draw at home to then Champions Celtic. A 4-0 victory over Dundee United would start a good run for Alex Dyer that saw Killie pick up 12 points from a possible 15, with the form of Chris Burke and Nicke Kabamba looking bright for the Ayrshire side's season. The good form for the season would largely end there, with Killie only going on to pick up 10 points from 15 games, a run that would cost Alex Dyer his job following St Johnstone coming from 2-0 down to defeat the Rugby Park side. This run was made especially noteworthy due to the reason that Killie had failed to score in 9 of the games and Dyer would relinquish his duties before a tough double bill of Celtic at home and St Mirren away. Former St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright has since taken over but things have not got better for Killie, only picking up 1 point from the 7 games since Dyer's departure, with goals still being hard to come by. 3 goals in 5 games haven't been a good enough return for Killie who will now have received the biggest alarm bell as the slipped to the bottom of the table following their defeat away to Ross County.

What Can Save Them?

As the form team, the ball is in Ross County's court to control their own destiny. They are 4 points ahead of the automatic relegation zone with a game in hand being played tomorrow at home to Hibs. A victory there would give the Staggies some breathing space although John Hughes will not allow his team's standards to drop because of that. Hughes will be challenging his players every day to maintain the levels of performances that have lifted them out of the relegation zones, making it crystal clear that this battle isn't over. County will also hold a psychological edge over both Hamilton and Kilmarnock, defeating both clubs recently under the reign of Hughes. Last weekend's victory against Kilmarnock was a convincing one whilst a late double away at Accies in February will give the Staggies a mental boost as they know what they're capable of against these two sides. Although County are the lowest scorers in the league, they do possess the best range of forwards out of the three clubs at the bottom. Oli Shaw has 6 goals in a season that has been impacted whilst Jordan White has made a good impact at the Highland club already. A brace for Billy McKay could also be the confidence boost that he desperately needs and if Hughes can get his forwards firing at the crucial moments, they should have enough to remain in the league.

No matter the circumstances or the situation, Hamilton always manage to do enough to ensure their safety for the next season. Accies have developed a reputation of being survival specialists and due to this, it's hard to go against them to stay up yet again. Brian Rice's side reaches this stage of the season and pull out bizarre results that get them by in heart-racing fashion. The Lanarkshire club even do enough late on to avoid playing in the playoffs and were bailed out last season by the season ending prematurely. Accies have this unmatched knack of pulling something out of the bag and it seems as if this season will reflect this yet again. A game in hand over Killie sees Accies travel to West Lothian to face an out of form Livingston, a game they could very well come out better off in based on the side's form. It may be unusual for a team in 11th place to be credited with having some of the signings of the season but if Accies can stay up, there are 3 in particular worth noting. Hakeem Odoffin has been a terrific addition in both defence and midfield, proving to be key versatile player in Brian Rice's squad. Ross Callachan has also had a redeeming season following a couple of unsuccessful spells in the top flight but he currently sits as the league's 8th top goalscorer. 11 goal contributions is massive for a team like Accies as Callachan has added real quality to this Hamilton side in an impressive season for the 27-year-old. Callachan has been the bright spark for Accies so far this season and if they stay up, you can guarantee he'll have had a big say in it. Lastly, the addition of Bruce Anderson has improved Accies as a whole as he appears to be the ideal strike partner for Marios Ogkmpoe or David Moyo. Anderson has been busy since joining, bringing high energy and 3 goal contributions in 6 games already with Accies overall performances benefitting from his presence.

For Kilmarnock, things look very bleak at this moment. In all honesty, there isn't an awful lot to be too excited about with Tommy Wright's side at the moment but they have made a very good signing in the past few months. Former Rangers and Hearts forward Kyle Lafferty joined Killie in February and he has already shown glimpses of the talents he possesses. Although he didn't score in his first two games, Lafferty's presence was clear, especially against Dundee United where he was creating plenty of opportunities for his side. A brace against Ross County wasn't enough to get a point but showcased that Lafferty can be real asset for the Ayrshire club. The Northern Irishman has plenty of ability and realistically, shouldn't be plying his trade for the league's bottom club. However, if he really gets going, it'll be no surprise to see Killie move out of the relegation zone. On his day, he is arguably the best player from teams in the lower half and Kilmarnock will be relying on his ability late on to save their season.

What Could Be Their Downfall?

For all three clubs, each team's support will have concerns about their current defences as Hamilton and County have the worst defensive records this season whilst Kilmarnock haven't quite shown solidity at the back recently. For the neutral, this makes the relegation battle even more interesting as every team's backline can be targeted as a weakness by the other sides. Looking at each club's striking options, they will fancy themselves to go up against each of the opposition backlines. Kilmarnock's defensive performance against Ross County left a lot to be desired but the first goal Killie scored against County also raises questions of their backline. Accies have sharpened up defensively recently but have still conceded the most this season with 57 in 31 games.

Individually, Accies main issues could come in the form of their squad depth. It has already plagued them this season and another couple of injuries or suspensions to key players could severely weaken their side in high-pressure matches. The club do a great job of breeding through youth players but in this situation against sides made up of experienced players, it could be a step too far for some of the youth products. This, of course, isn't a guarantee but the Accies squad is so thin that missing a couple of key players could make all the difference.

For Kilmarnock, I highlighted that Kyle Lafferty will be their main threat going on but that also makes him an easily identifiable target for other teams. Killie aren't up to much and if you can nullify that threat by swarming him every time he has the ball, you don't really fancy Kilmarnock to do much more. Killie desperately needs their other stars to start stepping up which hasn't been the case for quite some time now. Teams will go in with a gameplan to deal with their main threat and if they succeed, Killie will really struggle to get any joy in their final 6 games of the season.

With the split coming up, this means each side will play each other once more with Ross County hosting Hamilton and having to travel to Kilmarnock. Ross County were convincingly beaten in these fixtures earlier in the season, losing 2-0 to Accies and 3-1 to Kilmarnock, showing that even though they are in the driving seat, County must be aware of the tough tests that have already caught them out this season. As mentioned before, it's all in County's hands due to their current positioning so as long as they maintain performances they will be fine. This could lead to an increase of pressure on the players as even subconsciously they may be thinking too much about their own performances as the other teams will go out there with nothing to lose. Hughes has a job on his hands to keep his squad sharply focussed on the task at hand but a slip up could knock the confidence in his team, especially if it takes place in one of the later games of the season.

Each side has a lot to play for as they want to welcome their fans back to stadiums in the same division that they left them in. With 7 games for County and Accies and 6 for Killie, there is plenty of football left to be played with twists and turns sure to happen. Each team has to play one another a final time in games that are not to be missed, sadly our broadcasters will disagree and the games of the weekend will fall under the radar. With the league wrapped up already, the most excitement now will come in the battle at the bottom end of the table, with a lot of uncertainty as to who will prevail. Each team who has spent time around the bottom has had spells where they looked down and out but have then bounced back to prove us wrong. Accies and County have done so already, it's now up to Killie to match their rivals' efforts.

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