JAMES KEATINGS is desperate to banish a nightmare start to his Hibs career by helping fire his team back into title contention.
The Easter Road side languish 11 points behind the leaders Rangers, albeit with a game in hand, and bookies already view the battle for the Championship as done and dusted. The Ibrox side, who have won all nine of their games so far, are as short as 1/100 in places, with Hibs available at 20/1.
However, Keatings, who has started just two matches since moving to Easter Road from city rivals Hearts in the summer, is adamant that Hibs can still reel in the league leaders over the remaining three quarters of the season.
“Rangers can definitely be caught,” said the striker. “In this league, teams can drop points anywhere – there are plenty tough away games. Rangers haven’t won the league yet.”
Hibs have the chance to reduce their arrears to five points if they can win their next four league games. This run includes their game in hand at Falkirk as well as an Easter Road showdown with Rangers on November 1. Keatings sees no reason why Hibs, who have won six of their last seven games, can’t stay in touch with the leaders over the next few games and then strike a meaningful blow a fortnight on Sunday.
“We showed at Ibrox [in a 1-0 defeat in August] that we can cause them problems,” he said. “I was in the away end that day and we could have won the game if we’d taken our chances, but it just didn’t happen for us and then they scored the free-kick. We’ve got a few big games coming up so hopefully we can keep our run going. We’ll be looking to keep winning all our games until we play Rangers and then take some confidence into that game.”
Keatings was part of a Hearts squad that made a strong start to the Championship season last year and ultimately cruised to the title. He recognises that Rangers are currently playing with the same level of consistency and confidence as the Jambos had last year, but doesn’t believe that necessarily means they will be able to maintain their hot streak the way his old club did. “Rangers have got momentum, the same as when I was at Hearts last season,” he said. “When you’re winning every week, the team keeps growing in confidence and you go on to the pitch believing you’re going to beat teams 3-0. You can see that in the Rangers team but we’re not scared of them. We’re confident with the players we’ve got that we can cause them problems. At Hearts, we didn’t crack last season, but that doesn’t mean Rangers won’t. It’s up to them to stay unbeaten all the way. Good luck to them if they go unbeaten all the way but I can’t see it. There will be a defeat or something that will burst them.”
While Mark Warburton’s team have been in swashbuckling form for much of the season, Keatings has seen signs of vulnerability. He believes that, as long as Hibs keep winning their own matches, they will get opportunities to turn up the heat on a Rangers side he expects to become burdened by pressure at some point.
“When you’re winning every week, people outside try and put pressure on you to see if you can keep it going,” he said. “You see it in the papers every day when people are talking about whether you can keep the momentum going and whether you can stay unbeaten all season. Rangers will feel that pressure. We saw St Johnstone beat them recently in the League Cup, so they can be beaten. The likes of Falkirk and ourselves have also given them a real good run for their money at Ibrox. Some teams will go there and be scared and sit in against them, but others like Falkirk, St Johnstone and ourselves have gone there and showed that you can cause them problems.”
Keatings is hoping he is now ready to play a meaningful part in Hibs’ challenge. The striker missed pre-season and the start of the campaign through a hamstring injury. He returned to action in August but, in only his second start, at home to Alloa five weeks ago, he suffered a recurrence of the injury. After a couple of weeks full training, however, he is now in contention to return to the squad for Saturday’s clash with Dumbarton at Easter Road.
“It’s been a total nightmare – that’s the only way I can put it,” he said of his injury-interrupted start to life at Hibs. “When you go to a new club you want to hit the ground running and score goals but I’ve not had a chance to do that. I’ve played three games and managed to get a goal but I’ve not had the minutes to get sharp yet and show the best of myself. I’ve had two weeks training with a bounce game in between and I’m feeling good now, so hopefully that’s me sorted and it’s all go.”
Even though he is fit again, Keatings has another battle on his hands as he bids to force his way into the starting XI. Dominique Malonga, Jason Cummings and Martin Boyle have been in good form of late, while recent signings Henri Anier and Islam Feruz are also hoping to force their way into the team.
“The manager brought in Islam and Henri to add to the group we had and it’s brought real competition for places,” he said. “We’re all fighting for it. Jason’s scoring goals in pretty much every game and Dom [Malonga] got man of the match in the last game so it’s up to whoever’s got the jersey to keep it.”
Keatings has been joined by a familiar face at East Mains in recent weeks after left-back Adam Eckersley followed him in moving to Hibs from Hearts. The two were close friends and renowned dressing-room pranksters during their time at Tynecastle last term. “I was close to Adam last season and he’s a quality player who will bring a lot to the changing room,” said Keatings. “He’s settled in well. He’s a loud boy and he’s been quite loud already even though he’s only been here a wee while.”