James Keatings played an instrumental role as a much-changed Hibs side edged out battling Raith Rovers in a dramatic finale to their Championship clash at Easter Road.
The former Hearts striker scored a double and set up substitute Grant Holt for Hibs’ other goal as the recently-crowned Championship winners denied the eighth-placed Kirkcaldy side what would have been a priceless point in their quest to avoid relegation.
With the title having been sewn up a week past Saturday, Neil Lennon, serving the first game of a two-match touchline ban for misconduct against Morton last month, took the chance to rest the majority of his main men and give game time to fringe men and youngsters. In total, there were ten changes to the starting line-up from Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Aberdeen, with Efe Ambrose the only survivor.
Chris Humphrey came in for his first start since the Scottish Cup victory over Hearts two months previously, while Jordon Forster was given his first outing since he was on the end of the rash tackle by Morton striker Kudus Oyenuga that sparked the infamous brawl at Easter Road four weeks earlier.
Fraser Murray, the 17-year-old who scored in the Irn-Bru Cup win at Turriff United in September, was given his league debut. He was joined in central midfield by development team colleague Scott Martin and Andrew Shinnie, who wore the captain’s armband.
Senior duo Holt and Marvin Bartley were on the subs’ bench alongside five academy players – Maciej Dabrowski, Innes Murray, Kevin Waugh, Callum Donaldson and Sean Mackie.
John Hughes’ relegation-threatened Raith team were without Rudi Skacel, the suspended former Hearts attacker, and Danny Handling, the on-loan Hibs midfielder who was ineligible to face his parent club. Both players watched on from the stand, with Liam Henderson, who won the Scottish Cup with the Hibees last season while on loan from Celtic, also an interested spectator.
The new-look Hibs team were deployed in a 3-5-2 formation, with Humphrey, operating as a right wing-back, the most prominent player as Hibs dominated the first quarter of the match.
With four minutes gone, the former Motherwell winger created the first clear chance of the match when he delivered an inviting cross from the right and young Murray, bursting into the danger area, was desperately unfortunate to see his stooping header go wide.
A minute later, another Humphrey delivery set up Brian Graham, whose goalbound header was tipped over the bar by Pavol Penksa. From the resulting corner, taken by Keatings, the ball broke to Forster at the back post, but his low shot was charged down by Ross Matthews.
The centre-back then hooked another effort harmlessly wide from another Keatings corner in the 11th minute. Humphrey’s deliveries from the right were a feature of the early exchanges and he sent in another one in the 17th minute, from which Graham headed wide.
Shinnie then rasped a powerful shot wide from the edge of the box in the 20th minute and, two minutes later, Murray almost netted with a blistering strike from 25 yards out which flew just over the top.
Raith were offering little but they almost struck against the run of play in the 27th minute when Chris Johnston saw a firm left-footed shot from edge of the box well saved by Ross Laidlaw, the former Rovers goalkeeper, after being teed up by Bobby Barr. The visitors threatened again eight minutes later, with Declan McManus hooking an angled effort over the bar after Barr’s corner fell to him at the back post.
Just as Hibs looked to be enduring a lull as an attacking force, and with the game seemingly heading towards a goalless interval scoreline, the hosts went ahead. Graham, from inside the centre circle, played a lovely diagonal pass up the right that sent Humphrey in behind the visiting defence, and the winger took his time before chipping a perfect ball across the face of goal for the in-rushing Keatings to cushion a well-placed volley into the net from eight yards out. On balance, Hibs were worthy of their half-time advantage.
They almost relinquished it shortly after the restart, however, as Alex Harris sent an attempted clearance from a Barr cross dangerously over his own crossbar. Harris, playing left wing-back, was more prominent at the right end of the pitch in the 50th minute when he sent over a perfect cross for Murray, but the otherwise impressive teenager somehow sent his close-range effort wide of the near post.
Another Humphrey cross in the 58th minute gave Shinnie a half-chance, but the on-loan Birmingham City midfielder’s acrobatic volley from 15 yards out went high over the bar.
Raith were gradually beginning to impose themselves on the match and Ambrose had to make a brave block in front of goal to stop Barr’s powerful strike finding a way past Laidlaw in the 63rd minute. The visitors weren’t to be denied, however, and four minutes later they cut their hosts wide open to equalise when Barr threatened a pass through for McManus, who clinically despatched a shot beyond Laidlaw from 15 yards out.
Rovers had their tails up and McManus went desperately close to a second when he curled an effort over Laidlaw and against the inside of the far post in the 73rd minute. The same player then saw a header tipped over by Laidlaw.
Hibs, clearly concerned about Raith’s growing threat, introduced experienced pair Holt and Bartley from the the bench in place of Brian Graham and Andrew Shinnie. Holt was to have a swift impact as he edged Hibs in front in the 81st minute. Keatings played a ball over the top from just inside his own half. Holt gambled, the Raith defence stopped and the big Cumbrian gleefully dinked an effort over the exposed Penska and into the net.
The visitors weren’t finished, and substitute Ryan Hardie pulled them level for a second time in the 85th minute when he ran on to a through ball from Jonny Court and rounded Laidlaw to net as the home support screamed for offside.
Hibs won it at the death, though, as Keatings drilled in a low free-kick from a yard outside the penalty area after Jordan Thompson had needlessly handled.
Hibs: Laidlaw, Ambrose, McLean, Forster, Harris, Martin, F Murray (Mackie 86), Shinnie (Bartley 75), Humphrey, Keatings, Graham (Holt 77). Unused subs: Dabrowski, I Murray, Waugh, Donaldson.
Raith Rovers: Penska, Thomson, C Barr, Mvoto, McHattie, B Barr, Thompson, Matthews, Johnston (Hardie 83), McManus, Stewart (Court 62). Unused subs: Brennan, Benedictus, Roberts.
Referee: G Aitken