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Rice encouraged by Hamilton youngsters

Brian Rice has told youngsters Ross Cunningham and Lewis Smith they can play a major part for Hamilton this season.

Cunningham, 21, marked his first Accies start on Saturday with a stunning double in the 2-2 draw with Partick Thistle before netting in the penalty shoot-out triumph that earned Rice’s team a Betfred Cup bonus point.

He second goal – a sensational 20-yard effort that arced into the top corner – was laid on by 19-year-old Smith, who scored his first professional goal against Clyde in midweek.

And manager Rice says they will keep their places so long as they maintain their recent performance levels.

He said: “It was brilliant for Ross Cunningham. I believe that was his first start so to score twice is incredible for him.

“I’m delighted for the boy because he’s had a hard time with injuries over the last couple of seasons and we only got to the bottom of that in March.

“He’s worked really hard to get himself in good condition and now it’s up to him to keep progressing.

“Young players need to earn the right to be in the team and he and Lewis Smith have done that and they’ve added something to us. I’m pleased with what they’re giving me.”

Accies’ 6-5 shoot-out win moves them to within a point of Gary Caldwell’s Jags at the top of Group F.

Thistle can claim automatic qualification for the knock-out rounds by beating Clyde on Wednesday but Rice, whose team round off their section campaign away to Airdrie next Saturday, is keeping his fingers crossed that his side can also progress.

“We just need to go and win at Airdrie and see where that leaves us,” he said. “We could still top the group or qualify as one of the best runners-up.”