James Keatings ready to fight for his Hibs place

As one of eight strikers on the books at Easter Road, the arrival of yet another frontman in the shape of Chris Dagnall was probably the last thing Hibs star James Keatings could have wished for.

Hibs striker James Keatings
Hibs striker James Keatings

Not only does the signing of former Leyton Orient hitman Dagnall add further competition for places already being fought over by top scorer Jason Cummings, Dominique Malonga, Farid El Alagui, Henri Anier, Martin Boyle, Islam Feruz, Jamie Insall and Keatings himself, it comes at a time when the former Hamilton and Hearts player is suffering a drought in front of goal.

Although he has claimed seven goals so far this season to be second top scorer at Easter Road behind Cummings (16), Keatings hasn’t managed to find the back of the net in his last six appearances. His frustration has piqued given that in his previous two matches he had scored five goals. He registered the first hat-trick of his career when helping Hibs defeat St Mirren and followed that with both goals in a 2-1 win over Livingston.

That deluge appeared to make up for an injury-ravaged start to the season, a persistent hamstring problem which first troubled him during the pre-season training camp in the Spanish resort of La Manga restricting his appearances following his surprise switch from Capital rivals Hearts where he had scored 18 goals last season.

Chris Dagnall battles for the ball with Raith's David Bates

Keatings signed a two-year contract hoping to make an immediate impact knowing he would have to win over the Hibs support, but glimpses of him in green and white were fleeting throughout August, September and the first half of October although he did manage to get off the mark with goals against Raith Rovers and Dumbarton.

Even so, seven goals in 16 matches represents a reasonable return for a player who has often been utilised by head coach Alan Stubbs in that more withdrawn role at the tip of the midfield diamond.

However, the 23-year-old hasn’t found the back of the net since that double against Livingston in mid-November, a frustration, he admits, but not a statistic to make him overly concerned.

True there have been occasions when he feels he should have done better when goalscoring opportunities presented themselves, such as in last month’s narrow win against Queen of the South, but there have also been days like that at Ibrox when he had no chances whatsoever.

Chris Dagnall battles for the ball with Raith's David Bates

And then, as strikers so often find when on such a run, there’s that split-second when you feel the wait is over only to be crushed by a stunning save such as that produced by Raith goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert as Hibs faced Rovers for the second time in a week, this time in the Scottish Cup.

After what boss Stubbs conceded was a poor first half from his side – the former Celtic and Everton defender revealing he’d had a few words being less than happy with what he’d seen at Stark’s Park – Keatings had the massive Hibs support behind Cuthbert’s goal jumping to their feet only for them to slump back into their seats as Raith’s No.1 got his finger tips to the ball.

“It was a top-class save,” agreed a magnanimous Keatings. “But that’s just the sort of thing that happens when you are a striker and desperate to get a goal. On another day it goes in, this time the keeper pulls off a great save.

“However, I know you go through spells like this and your confidence does get a bit of a dent. But I’ve been there before, it’s all about working hard and to keep knocking on that door until you knock it down. Then, suddenly, one day one flies in and you are up and running again.”

AS it was it took a defender to break the deadlock and send Hibs on their way to last night’s Scottish Cup fifth-round draw, substitute Darren McGregor latching onto a bouncing ball after Raith defender Kyle Benedictus had taken a fresh-air shot at Lewis Stevenson’s cross to drill a low shot under Cuthbert – his first goal for the club and Hibs’ 1000th in the competition.

If Keatings enjoyed a rueful smile at that one given Cuthbert would no doubt have been cursing himself for not doing better only a couple of minutes after his wonder save, he wouldn’t say, he was just delighted to see it hit the back of the net.

He said: “The first half and up to Darren’s goal had been a bit of a struggle. The fact we were playing Raith for the second time in a week didn’t, I think, help us. They were well aware of how we play although, to be fair, we didn’t play anywhere near as well as we can in the first 45 minutes.

“Darren was obviously delighted to get off the mark and the good thing from a team point of view is that it’s another player on the scoresheet. We strikers obviously love to get the goals, and it’s been a bit frustrating for me in recent games, but it’s important that they come from all over the pitch, that as many of us chip in as possible.”

It was the rather more familiar figure of Malonga who clinched the victory, the Congolese internationalist rifling a 25-yard drive into the top corner of Cuthbert’s net, his third goal in four games and that, declared Keatings, was the over-riding concern.

He said: “The only objective was ensuring we got ourselves into the draw for the next round and in the end we managed to do that reasonably comfortably.”

Cummings’ illness and skipper David Gray’s knee knock presented Dagnall and fellow new signing Niklas Gunnarsson with immediate debuts, the Norwegian defender giving way to McGregor early in the second half as he tired while Dagnall played the entire 90 minutes, their introduction an added bonus for Stubbs.

Keatings said: “I thought the new boys fitted in well for their first game and things will only get better as we play together in the coming weeks. It gave them a taste of what it is all about and that will stand them in good stead.”

And asked about the added competition Dagnall will bring to a squad already boasting what appears to be a surfeit of strikers, Keatings replied: “Chris has a lot of experience to bring to the side. I’m sure he’ll be working hard to keep his place in the team but he’ll know the rest of us will be doing the same as we all want to play. Hopefully we can give the manager a few headaches when it comes to team selection and that can only be a good thing.”