Hibs in pole position but keen to get over finishing line
James Keatings and his team-mates can almost reach out and touch it, but for the moment at least the prize '“ the Championship title '“ remains agonisingly outwith their grasp.
It may, many might say, be only a matter of time before Hibs finally get their hands on the trophy and end their three-year exile in the second tier of Scottish football, Neil Lennon’s players enjoying a healthy lead over the chasing pack with games fast disappearing into the sand.
Already Dundee United, reckoned throughout the season to be their main rivals, appear to be a spent force, the Tannadice outfit ten points adrift while Hibs’ closest challengers, Falkirk and Morton, still have some ground to make up if they are to upset the odds.
Those two do battle tomorrow a few minutes after Hibs’ own game against Dumbarton at Easter Road comes to an end with one or other – or even both – finding themselves even further behind the Capital club provided, of course, they clock up a fourth win of the season against Stevie Aitken’s part-timers.
And they will, won’t they? At first glance a visit from Dumbarton would appear to be the “banker” in a run of matches which began with that trip to Tayside and continues hereafter with Falkirk and then Morton pitching up in Edinburgh.
But as far as Keatings is concerned, there will be no such thinking in the home dressing-room ahead of kick-off, the entire focus being on ensuring that pivotal victory against United is made to count by taking another three points which, one way or another, will see Hibs take another step towards the title.
He said: “I know everyone will look at tomorrow’s game in the run of matches we’ve got this month and say it’s the easier game, but none of them are easy.
“Teams make it difficult for us, they get men behind the ball, make themselves hard to break down. Every game is a different test, we have to be ready and on the day hope we can do what we have to do.
“Dumbarton caused us a few problems last season, they beat us twice at their place, and this season they’ve also taken points off United and Falkirk. They may be part-time, but they are well organised, have a lot of good players and have shown over the last few years that they are more than equipped to play in this league.”
If the scent of victory is firmly in the nostrils of Lennon’s players, Keatings believes the recent resurgence of basement club St Mirren, who followed up their surprise win over Hibs with victory against United the other night to cut the gap between themselves and second-bottom Ayr United to a single point, will have focused the minds of those players battling at the bottom end of the table every bit as much as the thought of winning the title is occupying the minds of him and his team-mates.
He said: “St Mirren are suddenly right back in it down there. Dumbarton are that bit closer to them now so they’ll be looking to get the points to keep them in the league next season. We know something will give when Falkirk and Morton play each other but we have to make sure that whatever way that game turns out we are in a position to take advantage by taking care of business ourselves.
“We have a lead but we not only want to keep hold of it but improve on it. The most important thing is to get over the finishing line as quickly as possible, to concentrate on each game as it comes up and on taking all the points we possibly can.”
To that end, admitted Keatings, the victory over Dundee United can’t be over-estimated, Hibs having gone into the match knowing defeat could well result in a nerve-shredding end to the season.
He said: “It was a massive win, the boys were brilliant, the fans as well with the backing they gave us on the night. It was a great goal from Jason Cummings to win it, we had more chances to do that more comfortably but I’ll take as many 1-0 victories as you like between now and the end of the season.
“We are at the business end of the season and at this stage games start to run away from you very quickly. If you lose there’s no scope to talk about getting things right next week so if we want to win the league and go up we know what we have to do.”
Keatings, of course, has twice won promotion from the Championship, via the play-offs with Hamilton as they relegated Hibs and again the following season as Hearts ran away with the title.
Rangers did so last season and while many were expecting Hibs to do likewise this time round, it has been more of a slog, at least thus far, for Lennon’s players who have endured a couple of stutters along the way.
Those blips, the most recent of which a run of four winless games ended by Cummings’ goal at Tannadice, prompted some speculation as to whether Hibs had what it takes to see a title challenge over the line.
But, insisted Keatings, just one look at how the Easter Road side bounced back from the agony of having their promotion hopes dashed last season to win the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years only a few days later would answer all such questions. He said: “I think we showed more than a bit character, not only coming back to win the cup after missing out on the play-offs but to do so after going behind in the final itself.
“The boys have become stronger, the manager coming in knew what he wanted to put across in terms of mental strength and he has done that.
“We are at a big club, we have fans turning out in huge numbers home and away expecting us to win and that’s what we are trying to do. There’s pressure but I think we’d all rather have what being at the top going for a title brings than chasing and hoping the team in front slips up.”
With Cummings suspended following his two yellow cards at Tannadice, Keatings is likely to get a rare start tomorrow, an opportunity he’d be desperate to grasp although, at the same time, admitting the form of his fellow striker has given him little room for complaint as he’s watched from the bench.
He said: “The boys have been doing the business so I have to go with what the manager says. I can play a number of positions and he knows I’ll give 100 per cent and contribute whatever I can.”