Hibs 4, Dumbarton 0: Keatings turns heat up on Falkirk
Hibs got the win they wanted and cut Falkirk's goals advantage to just three, leaving second place in the Championship table hanging in the balance going into the final round of fixtures on Sunday.
James Keatings gave the Capital side a dream start, firing them ahead after only seven minutes and he took his tally for the season to ten with his second of the game within the opening quarter of an hour.
Dumbarton goalkeeper Jamie Ewings pulled off a string of superb saves to prevent Steve Aitken’s side suffering a real hammering, denying Liam Henderson, Anthony Stokes (twice) and Martin Boyle while Lewis Stevenson sent a vicious shot crashing off the post.
However, there was nothing Ewings could do to prevent Keatings grabbing a third before Stokes poked home a fourth in added-on time.
The onus was on Hibs primarily to ensure they picked up the three points to haul themselves level with Falkirk and so give themselves a fighting chance of pipping the Bairns in Sunday’s final round of fixtures.
Alan Stubbs’ players would equally have been acutely aware of the need to get among the goals with Falkirk enjoying a handy advantage in that regard, their manager Peter Houston having expressed his fear that Dumbarton, with their Championship place assured for next season, might just be a bit too relaxed.
As such, the homes fans would have been surprised to see top scorer Jason Cummings start from the bench.
It was one of four changes made by the head coach, goalkeeper Mark Oxley “rested”, a move which gave Scottish Cup semi-final hero Conrad Logan his first start at Easter Road while John McGinn, Boyle and Keatings also came in as skipper David Gray was named among the substitutes while Martin Bartley served a one-match suspension.
Stubbs had promised his side would be as positive as possible and, if the weekend performance at Cappielow was lethargic, there was certainly an energy and vigour about them from the off, Boyle and Stokes stretching Dumbarton on the flanks.
And they got the early goal they’d have been hoping for, Fraser Fyvie, playing the holding role in front of the back four, venturing forward to thread a superb ball through for Keatings to wheel and hammer a rising shot beyond Ewings.
Heartened by that breakthrough, Hibs went looking for more and almost got it, Ewings throwing himself full-length to his left to push away Liam Henderson’s free-kick before the goalkeeper, under pressure from Darren McGregor, could only palm Boyle’s high, hanging ball down for Paul Hanlon to slide a yard wide.
But a second was merely delayed, Ewings pulling off a terrific save from Boyle only for the ball to fall for Niklas Gunnarsson, who drilled it towards the back post where Keatings was lurking to tap it home from inside the six-yard box.
The eagerness Hibs were displaying was all too evident as Henderson immediately tried to wrestle the ball from the arms of Dumbarton defender such was his desire to get on with things.
If Ewings had anticipated a busy evening then he wasn’t disappointed, again going acrobatically to his left to prevent Henderson from increasing the scoreline even further.
Dumbarton were finding themselves pinned down deep inside their own territory, McGinn, Fyvie and Henderson chasing and harrying their opponents while Keatings was more than willing to drop that bit deeper.
He almost did so to devastating effect, picking the ball up and releasing Stokes, who picked out Henderson only for his follow loanee from Celtic to make an awful hash of his shot, sending it well wide rather than into the back of the net.
However, as much as Hibs wanted as many goals as possible, they couldn’t afford to concede any and they had the legs of Logan at his near post to thank for preventing Calum Waters doing exactly that.
Waters’ effort and another from ex-Hibs striker Paul Heffernan that drifted well wide apart, Stubbs’ side continued to dominate the match, maintaining a high tempo allied to pace and movement which they’d undoubtedly have been hoping would tell on their part-time opposition in the latter stages of the game.
Even so, Hibs should have gone in three to the good at half-time, Stevenson firing in an inviting cross only for the unmarked Gunnarsson to totally miss his kick with the goal gaping.
Whether or not they’d been buoyed by the fact they were only trailing by two, Dumbarton showed more enterprise at the beginning of the second half, Hanlon forced to step in to nick the ball off the feet of Heffernan as Hibs struggled to re-impose themselves on the game.
The home side had allowed the pace of the game to drop which suited Dumbarton but not the Hibs support, who were beginning to voice their frustration at not seeing the “goalfest” those two early strikes from Keatings had promised.
But they were lifted when Fyvie played in another astute pass, releasing Boyle, who hammered the ball across goal to find Stokes. The Republic of Ireland striker looked certain to score from only a few yards out and, although Ewings pulled off yet another impressive save, Stokes would certainly have been bitterly disappointed not to have scored.
The sight of former Hearts hitman Christian Nade, so often a thorn in Hibs’ side, coming on wouldn’t have helped the home nerves, the burly Frenchman always appearing good for a goal against them.
Dumbarton were far more compact than they had been in those opening 45 minutes, denying Hibs the space they’d enjoyed to knock the ball around and stretch the game.
A Jason Routledge tackle on Henderson, which left the Hibs midfielder writhing in agony and his team-mate Stokes raging – both him and the Dumbarton man were booked – presented the Capital outfit with a chance to further cut Falkirk’s goals advantage but again Ewings was to deny them, getting down to touch the Irishman’s free-kick round the post.
But there was nothing even Ewings could do to prevent Hibs going three ahead with 15 minutes remaining. Keatings was charging into the Dumbarton penalty area and, despite the attentions of Kevin Cawley, the striker sent the ball looping over the goalkeeper’s head and into the net.
Stokes stung the hands of Ewings yet again as Dumbarton began to tire and then used his feet to block Boyle’s effort before Stevenson beat him all ends up only to see his shot crash off the post.
And, in added-on time, Stokes claimed the fourth goal Hibs merited, poking the ball home from close-range.
Hibs (4-1-4-1): Logan; Gunnarsson, McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson; Fyvie; Boyle, Henderson, McGinn, Stokes; Keatings. Unused subs: Virtanen, Gray, Fontaine, Handling, Dagnall, Thomson, Cummings.
Dumbarton (4-1-4-1): Ewings; Saunders, Buchanan, Wright, Docherty; Barr; Cawley, Routledge, Gallagher (Fleming 63), Waters (Walsh 77); Heffernan (Nade 63). Unused subs: Brown, Taggart, McCallum, Lindsay.
Referee: D Robertson