Caley Thistle’s unbeaten start to their Championship season is over – but their shock 2-1 defeat at Hamilton was not enough to knock them off top spot.
A 3-1 loss for second-placed Kilmarnock against Raith Rovers means this surprise outcome was less damaging than it could have been.
Lewis Smith’s early strike put struggling Accies in control and Andy Ryan crashed home another midway through the first half.
A red card soon after that for Reegan Mimnaugh for a second bookable offence opened the door for a response from the Inverness team.
Despite dominating the second half, it took until stoppage time for Michael Gardyne to find the net, but it was too late to rescue a result.
Ex-Premiership foes down a division
These sides last locked horns in 2016/17 when Accies pipped ICT to 11th spot and sent Richie Foran’s Highlanders tumbling down a level.
The Inverness club have not found a way out yet, but they were joined by Hamilton this season after the Lanarkshire club finished bottom of the top-flight in May.
Former Caley Jags assistant manager Brian Rice resigned as their boss in April and Stuart Taylor left his coaching position alongside Malky Mackay at Ross County to take the helm at his former side.
One win and two draws before this encounter had them sitting second-bottom and 14 points behind the visiting leaders.
Danger sounded by ICT in build-up
However, the Inverness camp were at pains to point out that their opponents, like Dunfermline who held ICT to a 0-0 draw last month, were capable of turning in a big performance.
For Billy Dodds’ side, it was a case of trying to build upon their unbeaten start following on from last week’s 2-1 home win over Queen of the South.
Young defenders Wallace Duffy and Cameron Harper came in for David Carson and Danny Devine, who were unavailable. Carson was absent for a family matter, while Devine was in isolation as a close Covid contact.
Home boss Taylor made one changes from the line-up which drew 0-0 at Dunfermline as ex-Aberdeen midfielder Miko Virtanen came in for the injured Lewis Spence.
The pace-setters got off to the worst possible start in the drizzle when a lethal strike from Smith from close range gave Mark Ridgers no chance as he was teed up by smart back-heel from Virtanen.
That was actually Accies’ first home league goal since Kyle Munro scored against St Mirren in the Premiership since March 20.
There were question marks over the space Smith was given to crash home his goal, but it was delight from the home players. It was just what they were after.
ICT were patient though, not panicking and were almost level on 15 minutes when Michael Gardyne’s shot deflected wide after a swift move where he linked up with Sean Welsh.
Double trouble as Ryan hits net
However, it became a much tougher task for ICT on 26 minutes when Ryan turned full circle and steered home his fourth goal of the campaign after Smith became the provider.
Dodds made a switch a few moments later when he pitched striker Shane Sutherland on for Tom Walsh to create a two-pronged attack alongside Duku.
Sutherland was barely on the park when the hosts were reduced to 10 men when Mimnaugh was given his marching orders, with his booking for a foul on MacGregor adding to an earlier caution.
Accies defender Sean Want sliced down Roddy MacGregor on the stroke of half-time right on the edge of the box, which earned him a booking.
Sean Welsh, who scored a free-kick against Queen of the South last week, found the target again, but keeper Ryan Fulton got down to clutch it.
Long way back for Caley Thistle
It had certainly been a below-par 45 minutes from the Caley Jags and Dodds would have been driving that home at the interval.
Their second switch of the afternoon saw forward Billy Mckay come on for Duku to partner Sutherland in attack.
The visitors were on the front foot, probing for a way back in and, on 58 minutes, Sutherland’s net-bound drive was blocked by Mihai Popescu then cleared.
Hamilton keeper Ryan Fulton needed to be swift when he raced out of goal to stop Gardyne in his tracks before Harper’s attempt was turned past for a corner.
Going for broke with substitutions
Further going for broke, Dodds put on Anthony McDonald for Duffy to bolster their attacking options with 24 minutes to go.
It was all Inverness in the second half and Gardyne was a fraction away from connecting with a Harper delivery in the box.
MacGregor was next to go close when his effort flashed wide after he met a ball into the box from Scott Allardice then Harper’s connection hit the crossbar.
ICT finally got the breakthrough just after 90 minutes when Gardyne found space to rifle the ball past Fulton.
However, time ran out on them and they suffered their first league loss, but that defeat for Killie keeps them in pole position.
Next up for Caley Thistle is a third round SPFL Trust Trophy clash at League Two side Elgin City before turning their attention back to the league when Morton come calling on October 16.
Hamilton are in Challenge Cup action against Aberdeen under-20s this Wednesday, with their next league match being against Partick Thistle on Friday, October 15.
HAMILTON ACCIES (4-1-4-1): Fulton 6, Virtanen 6, Popescu 6, MacDonald 6, Ryan 7 (Moyo 76), Smith 7, Want 6 (Easton 80), Mullin 6, Mimnaugh 4, Matheson 6, Redfern 6 (Hughes 70). Subs not used: Hilton (GK), Hamilton, Munro, McGowan.
CALEY THISTLE (4-4-1-1): Ridgers 5, Duffy 5 (McDonald 66), Broadfoot 5, Deas 5, Harper 5, Welsh 6, Allardice 5, MacGregor 6, Gardyne 7, Walsh 3 (Sutherland 29), Duku 5 (Mckay 46). Subs not used: Mackay (GK), Jamieson, McAlear.
Referee: Euan Anderson 6.
Man of the match: Andy Ryan.