RAITH ROVERS proved somewhat troublesome to Hibs last season, the Kirkcaldy outfit losing just one game in four to Alan Stubbs’ side who, as a result, saw seven points slip from their grasp.
The Fife club, of course, weren’t alone in that regard, Hibs too often guilty of failing to make their superiority count and finding themselves wounded by the concession of avoidable and, in many cases, late goals as Christian Nade’s equaliser last time Raith visited Easter Road will testify. No such worries on this occasion, Stubbs’ players proving resolute if unspectacular, solid at the back with few moments of worry while, up front, James Keatings at last had the chance to display those predatory instincts which convinced the Hibs head coach to snap him up when Capital rivals Hearts decided the hitman was surplus to requirements.
Up until the last few days, Keatings has cut a forlorn figure, a persistent hamstring injury preventing him from getting involved in the action but now, with his first goal marking his first start in a green and white jersey, the smile is back on the face of the former Hamilton striker.
And, insisted team-mate Liam Fontaine, that grin is set to get wider and wider, the sharper Keatings becomes, the centre-half admitting he’s just happy he only has to face him in training as he’s a “nightmare” for defenders.
He said: “You could see the quality. He gets the ball out of his feet and finds the net from outside the box – great talent.
“He’s so sharp, he has that ability to quickly let a shot off. He’s a finisher, he can go both ways which is obviously a nightmare for defenders because you want to show them on to their weaker foot but he has the ability to go either way.”
Although in Jason Cummings – the scorer of Hibs’ second goal against Raith – the Easter Road club possess last season’s top scorer in the Championship and Dominique Malonga, who contributed a not to be sniffed at tally of 16, Fontaine admitted the pair could have enjoyed an even more impressive return.
But now Fontaine is convinced that with the addition of Keatings, the possibility of another striker being added before the transfer window closes and the impending return of Farid El Alagui the goals will flow while, hopefully, the backline will ensure there are plenty more clean sheets to underpin the club’s ambitions.
He said: “James is going to add more goals hopefully and if we can keep that base there, that solidness, it will bode well for us.
“Another striker will add further competition, which is great, especially when you are looking to achieve things. It pushes everyone on.”
Teams like Raith made life difficult last time round with their determination, particularly when pitching up at Easter Road, to stifle play and cash in on a moment’s lack of concentration, a tactic which brought both them and others a fair measure of reward.
Fontaine, however, believes this performance indicated Hibs can cope with such a situation, saying: “We felt comfortable and in control pretty much throughout the game. I think that needs to be the difference this season.
“Teams like Raith when they come here are going to try to frustrate us but we have to win games and not concede sloppy goals which we did.”
In truth Keatings’ 22nd-minute strike, quickly switching Liam Henderson’s pass from right foot to left before curling a shot beyond goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert was scant reward for Hibs’ efforts up to that point, the frontman denied by a superb last-ditch tackle from Kyle Benedictus after John McGinn’s ball had split the Raith defence.
And Cuthbert came to his side’s rescue, smothering Cummings’ effort after Benedictus almost undid his heroics by lazily losing possession.
But Hibs had Mark Oxley to thank for keeping their noses in front, the goalkeeper throwing himself full-length to push Grant Anderson’s shot aside before being forced to slide in to prevent Jon Daly capitalising on David Gray’s passback, the Raith striker adamant it should have been a penalty, although most agreed with referee Alan Muir’s view that the Hibs No.1 had got his foot to the ball.
Cummings’ fourth of the season, the 20-year-old stealing in at the back post to turn home Lewis Stevenson’s cross, eased the nerves caused by those two incidents either side of half-time to leave Stubbs happy enough with his team’s work.
He said: “I thought we were good at times, we defended well, stoutly. I’d watched Raith last midweek and they can certainly cause teams problems. They have a lot of physicality, a few big lads and a few decent players as well. This was a big game for us, not because of the result at Ibrox [which left Hibs trailing their title rivals by six points], I just thought it was a big game in general and we responded really well. There was a real brightness about them early on. We started well and on another day it could have been a couple more. But it’s great to see your strikers get on the scoresheet. James is confident – not as confident as Jason – but he is a natural goalscorer. He only has one thing in his mind, as soon as he has his first touch he is looking to get hit the target as soon as possible.
“He does exactly that in training – he reacts very quickly to things, which makes it difficult for defenders to try to stop and alongside Jason I thought we saw glimpses of potential.”
As happy as he was, Stubbs did, though, have to remind his players during the interval of the need to retain total concentration. He said: “Just before half-time we made a couple of rash decisions, gave away a couple of needless corners and when you have the height Raith have anything can happen.
“I told them not to invite needless pressure, to make good decisions, to be clear what your actions are going to be in clearing your lines, to be in control and I think we got a grip of the game again, created some really good bits of play and probably should have rewarded ourselves even more.”