James Keatings’ goal-scoring exploits at Falkirk Stadium last Friday night weren’t enough to keep Hibs’ promotion hopes alive, but the striker is hopeful they will at least help earn him the second prize of a starting place in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final against Rangers.
The 24-year-old has scored four goals in his last three starts for the Easter Road side, with his double against the Bairns taking his tally for the season to 12 – one more than he managed at city rivals Hearts last season.
The fact he was selected for a game of such high magnitude last weekend and duly delivered with a fine individual display would suggest he has a good chance of retaining his place alongside Anthony Stokes at Hampden on Saturday. Keatings, who has had to play second fiddle to top-scorer Jason Cummings for much of the season, is not taking anything for granted on that front, but would love the opportunity to score the goal that finally banishes Hibs’ 114-year wait for Scottish Cup glory.
“I never expect to play,” he said, when asked if he thought he had done enough to secure a start. “It’s the manager’s choice, he picks the team. Saturday will be no different and I’ll respect his decision. I’ve scored a few goals in the last couple of weeks, when I’ve been playing up front again. I’m grabbing the time I get on the pitch and I just want to make the most of it.
“As a striker, you dream of scoring in a final. It was the same in the League Cup final [in March], when I was sitting on the bench. I thought I could come on and make an impact and that’s what will be going through my head again this week.”
Turning the focus to Saturday’s match hasn’t been an easy task for anyone at Hibs in the wake of a harrowing Friday night in Falkirk when they were consigned to a third consecutive year in the Championship. Bob McHugh’s last-gasp winner for the Bairns – which sealed a 3-2 victory on the night and a 5-4 aggregate triumph – ensured a demoralising weekend for everyone connected with the Easter Road club.
“I was hurting and so were the rest of the boys,” said Keatings. “I thought we were comfortable at 2-1 up. Even after they equalised, Jason hit the bar and Stokesy had a chance. I felt as if we were going to get the goal. But it came to the last minute, a ball into the box and we didn’t manage to defend it. It was gutting.
“Our job at the start of the season was promotion and we’ve not managed to do it. We’ve got a good enough squad so we should have achieved it. We’ve fallen short. It’s a feeling that we’ve let people down. I felt totally deflated by it.
“We got a couple of days off to gather our thoughts and came back in on Monday. I didn’t move out of the house over the weekend. I had my wee girl on Saturday and she helped cheer me up a bit. Family time helped me take my mind off it and back on it for this weekend.”
Keatings explained that head coach Alan Stubbs has been a galvanising influence at East Mains in the early part of cup final week. “The manager’s been good,” said the striker. “He spoke to us and told us to focus on the cup final. He said we can’t change what’s happened with the league. We’re disappointed and we’ve let a lot of people down – the fans and the people at the club. But we have to move on and hopefully the cup final can give them something to celebrate. The manager has always been there, leading us. He’s always on the training field, telling us what to do.”
Keatings is hopeful that this Saturday’s final won’t prove to be Stubbs’ last in charge of the club. The striker has loved working under the Liverpudlian, who has been linked with Bolton and Blackburn recently. It remains to be seen whether he will stay at Easter Road for a third season in Scotland’s second tier.
“The manager is quality – everyone says it,” said Keatings. “There’s no doubt he’ll be linked to a lot of jobs but I’m sure he’s focused on this team and on winning the cup. There will be more speculation about other clubs, I’m sure, but he’s got a contract and I’m sure he’ll stick to it.”
Keatings celebrated his second goal at Falkirk on Friday by jumping gleefully into his manager’s arms. He insisted, however, this was not intended as a grand show of thanks to his boss for selecting him for such a big match. “I didn’t mean to run and jump into his arms,” he said. “I’ve had pelters for it every day since. When I scored I was delighted, ran that way and he just happened to be there. I can’t explain it… It was good to score but it counted for nothing.”
Keatings knows it is inevitable that other clubs will try to cherry pick Hibs’ best players following their failed promotion bid, but he is confident that most of his team-mates will be content to remain at Easter Road for next season.
“We have a quality squad, which I definitely think is of Premiership quality,” he said. “People can see that from the results we’ve had against Premiership teams this year. We’ve beaten and outplayed most of them. A lot of teams will want players from here, which might be good for individuals but we want to keep most of the team together and push to get the club up next year. It depends on whether the club decide to let a few of the players go or not, if clubs come in for them. It’s just the way it is. Players come and players go. The club will bring others in.”
Keatings insists there’s no way beating Rangers this weekend could ever be viewed as a hollow victory and refutes the suggestion that his team should somehow have sacrificed their cup runs in order to focus on promotion.
“Our first aim this year was to get promotion,” he said. “But winning the Scottish Cup would be a massive achievement as well. It’s disappointing we didn’t go up but it would still mean a lot to win it, especially considering how long it’s been since Hibs won it. You hear some of the fans say they’d rather have the cup than promotion but as players our first target was promotion.
“The cups were a bonus but as a team you want to challenge in every competition you’re in. We’ve tried to win each game. We’ve been on a good run and managed to get to two finals. You’re in it to win it.”
Rangers finished 11 points above Hibs in the Championship, but Keatings takes heart from the fact his side have beaten Mark Warburton’s team twice already this season. “The league table and points gap doesn’t lie,” said Keatings. “It shows they pulled away from us and won the league. We went on a bad run and it’s been a difficult time for us. We’re trying to turn the corner and kick on. Rangers stuck to the way they play, kept winning games and showed what a good team they are. But we’ve shown we can beat them. We’re a good team ourselves and I’m confident we can beat them.”