It may have ultimately ended in a degree of frustration for Hibs, but yesterday’s captivating 1-1 Scottish Cup quarter-final draw with holders Inverness Caledonian Thistle allowed them to banish some notable demons.
After three successive league defeats, an impressive performance which came close to bringing yet another victory over a Premiership side was welcomed by Alan Stubbs.
“We’re back on track, simple as that,” declared the head coach afterwards as he prepared to take his team to the Costa del Sol today to begin preparations for Sunday’s League Cup final showdown with Ross County.
Of those boarding the flight to Malaga, none will be more buoyant than James Keatings, whose second-half strike looked like taking Hibs into the semi-finals until Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo equalised for Inverness with 13 minutes left.
Although the former Hearts striker’s goal ultimately didn’t count as a winner, it meant everything to a player who had been enduring the worst drought of his career. Not since November 17 – almost four months ago – had Keatings bulged the net, and his simmering frustration had become all too evident in recent times. Little wonder, then, that he went wild with delight when he burst into the danger area to apply a clinical finish to a low David Gray delivery in the 53rd minute yesterday.
“The last few months have been absolutely horrendous for me so it was great to get the monkey off my back,” he said. “I went sixteen games without scoring, that’s the longest and most frustrating time in my career.
“The manager and the boys have been brilliant with me in the dressing-room. They know I’ve been really frustrated but the goal came and I felt a weight lifting from my shoulders. The manager keeps telling me to stop beating myself up but I know my standards and believe I should be playing a lot better than I have been. I showed here what I can do when I’m on my game.”
Keatings didn’t envisage such a barren period after smashing in five goals in two games against St Mirren and Livingston in November. A late miss against former club Hearts in the last round of the Scottish Cup was particularly galling, and he feared another day of woe against Caley Thistle when he had an early goal ruled out for offside. Persistence eventually paid off and, with his confidence restored, he is hopeful that he can now rediscover the scoring form that earned him first-pick status in the autumn.
“I believe my standards should lift now,” he said. “This will give me a bit of confidence. The longest I’d gone without scoring before was six games. This was 16 and it felt like it was never going to end.
“The miss against Hearts was playing in my head. It was a massive chance and I didn’t sleep that night. I kept saying I’d get another chance. Things weren’t dropping my way and when I had a goal chopped off in the first half here I thought it was never going to come. But now that I’ve got the goal, hopefully I can kick on and get a barrowload.”
Stubbs will be hoping this match has a galvanising effect on his entire team ahead of Sunday’s trip to Hampden. They performed impressively for long periods against John Hughes’ robust Caley Thistle side despite being without four key men – Fraser Fyvie, Marvin Bartley, Paul Hanlon and Jason Cummings – through a mixture of injury and suspension and then losing another – Dylan McGeouch – early on.
After a nervy start in which Inverness pressed without creating anything clear-cut, Hibs soon got themselves on the front foot. They almost took the lead from their first meaningful venture forward when Liam Henderson’s free-kick picked out Gray unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box and the captain’s firm header was brilliantly parried by Owain Fon Williams. It sparked a goalmouth melee in which Liam Fontaine somehow failed to force the ball over the line. Following question marks over his form since returning to Easter Road on loan from Celtic, Anthony Stokes seemed particularly keen to make an impression yesterday and he almost conjured a magnificent opener in the 13th minute. After dancing into the right-hand side of the box, the Irishman drilled in a low angled shot which came back off the inside of the post. Keatings was on hand to tap the rebound over the line, but his celebrations were cut short by the sight of the offside flag.
Hibs were dealt a blow in the 24th minute when McGeouch, who has been plagued by injury problems lately, had to leave the pitch to be replaced by Niklas Gunnarsson. This prompted a switch to 3-5-2 for the hosts, with the Norwegian slotting in as a third centre-back.
Play became scrappy for the remainder of the half with a 25-yard blast from Keatings, which was blocked by Fon Williams, the only further notable effort before the break. The same player then had the first attempt of the second half, but his firm, low strike was well saved by the Inverness keeper.
Hibs felt they should have had a penalty in the 49th minute when Keatings’ attempted flick into the path of Stokes looked to strike the hand of Danny Devine. However, the hosts weren’t to be denied much longer as Keatings finally ended his search for a goal.
Hibs’ tails were up by this point and, with Caley Thistle unable to get forward to meaningful effect, they looked on course for a place in the last four. However, after Henderson and Stokes spurned chances to extend their lead, the hosts began to gradually retreat as tired legs appeared to take hold. Inverness took full advantage as DR Congo internationalist Mbuyi-Mutombo, who had come on just three minutes earlier, steadied himself before firing high into the net from ten yards out after good work from Jordan Roberts and former Hibs youngster Lewis Horner to set him up.
The visitors threatened to nick a victory in the closing stages but Hibs held firm to set up a replay in the Highlands on Wednesday week and keep alive their hopes of a Scottish Cup semi-final showdown with Dundee United.
“When you look at the whole game, we’d maybe just done enough but it wouldn’t be much more than that,” said Stubbs. “I thought it was a close game. Mark Oxley’s not really had a save to make.
“We had a couple of decent chances in the first half. In the second half, we were better and controlled the game. Our tempo was better in the second half. I have to give Yogi and his team credit. They kept going.
“I didn’t think there was an awful lot between the teams, but, if anything, we just shaded it.”