James Keatings tipped to ‘batter in goals’ for Hibs

It took James Keatings just 22 minutes to open his account in green and white after starting his first game for Hibs. Picture: Toby Williams
It took James Keatings just 22 minutes to open his account in green and white after starting his first game for Hibs. Picture: Toby Williams
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Dylan McGeouch wasn’t in the slightest surprised to see James Keatings celebrate his first start for Hibs with a goal – because he’s been watching the striker bang them in since they were kids together at Celtic.

And now Keatings is finally off the mark following a frustrating beginning to his Easter Road career as he battled to overcome a hamstring injury, McGeouch believes he’ll be giving the Hibs fans plenty more to cheer.

James Keatings and Dylan McGeouch share a joke while at Celtic in 2011

James Keatings and Dylan McGeouch share a joke while at Celtic in 2011

Keatings’ predatory instincts were obvious from his days with Celtic’s Under-19 side, where he ended up top scorer with 25 goals one season despite being floored by a torn cruciate ligament, and that happy knack continued at Hamilton and then with Hearts who surprised many of their own supporters by releasing him halfway through his Tynecastle contract.

Now, though, insists McGeouch, Keatings will add an even greater threat to a Hibs strikeforce which already boasts last season’s Championship top scorer Jason Cummings and Congolese hitman Dominique Malonga who marked his first year in Edinburgh with 16 goals to his name.

“We’ve known each other for years,” revealed McGeouch. “I know him well having played with him and against him. He’s a Glasgow boy like myself and we travel through for training together and I have to say I was delighted to see him sign for Hibs. Every level of football I have played with him he’s just battered goals in. Give him half a yard and he will pull the trigger as we saw against Raith Rovers at the weekend. He’s got a powerful left foot but he is a quality player with great movement, the ability to hold the ball up, to lay it off and to spin in behind defenders, an all-round kind of striker.

“After scoring all those goals as a youngster at Celtic he did the same at Hamilton. At Hearts, although I don’t think he started a lot of games, he also had a good goal-scoring record. So when he was up for grabs Hibs did well to get him and I’m sure he’ll be a great signing for us.”

The signing of Keatings preceded McGeouch’s return, the midfielder agreeing a three-year deal having spent last season on loan with Alan Stubbs’ side which, despite possessing the nucleus of the team which went close but not close enough to gaining promotion at the first time of asking, has also lost familiar figures such as Liam Craig, Scott Robertson and the mercurial Scott Allan.

But with the addition of the likes of John McGinn and Liam Henderson, on loan from Celtic, in the midfield, McGeouch believes little has changed, saying: “Are we a stronger squad than last season? I don’t know.

“We played a lot of good football last season but I think we played really well against Raith. We’re playing the same way, passing the ball with young players in the middle of the park while the gaffer has been adding up front and at the back.

“As a team I think we are just as strong and looking to get stronger.”

While changes have been made, the back four along with goalkeeper Mark Oxley remain in situ, defensive strength in depth having been acquired with the signing of Darren McGregor following his release by title rivals Rangers, the lifelong Hibs fan offering cover at both right-back and in the centre.

And those players, McGeouch insisted, can provide the cornerstone on which the team will function, affording a solidity at the back to give others like himself the licence to get forward.

He said: “It’s an experienced back line, they know each other well from having played together last season and they’ve clocked up a lot of games between them. It’s great to know they are behind you and that if a team is breaking on you then nine times out of ten they will clear things up.

“We work hard for each other as a team, looking to get the ball back if we give it away and it’s great we have a lot of young lads like myself with lots of legs in there. It’s also terrific to be in there with guys who are on the same wavelength. We all want to do the same thing, to play football.

“We don’t just knock it over the top, we look to get a foot on the ball, to pass it and move it. We have a lot of freedom, you can see in a game we rotate a lot. It’s not a case of you play right and you play left, it’s creative football, the style of football we all like to play, attractive, bringing others in to the game and feeding off each other.

“I think once we get five or six games under our belts together we’ll be very good. The gaffer wants us to go out there and express ourselves just as he did last season, not to be silly but to play in the right areas and if we are in the final third to try things. The message from the gaffer is ‘you are all good football players so get out there and play football’.”

And that freedom to “try things,” McGeouch believes, will reap a rich harvest with razor-sharp strikers like Keatings and Cummings, the skills of the sometimes enigmatic Dominique Malonga, the imminent and much-awaited return of Farid El Alagui from injury and Stubbs’ intent in bringing in yet another frontman before the transfer window closes tonight.

The 22-year-old said: “I think it’s great for the guys like myself in midfield, knowing that if you make the pass you are going to have strikers such as them making the runs for you and then making you look good by putting the ball in the back of the net.

“If you look at James and Jason, for instance, they are sharp, small but strong and they’ll get stuck in around the feet of big defenders, looking to shift the ball and work the goalkeeper at the very least.

“We saw James and Jason both score on Saturday, Dom come off the bench and do well, Farid is still to come back and now there’s talk of another striker coming. It’s going to be great for the club to have such competition not only up-front but in midfield and at the back.”