RIGHT after the defeat at Ibrox, where Hibernian had created a good number of chances only to fluff all of them, Alan Stubbs was asked if he would be “having a word” with the man identified as culprit-in-chief, Liam Henderson. The manager was clearly irked by the question but found a good answer. “No,” he said, “but I will be saying to him well done for getting into a position to score.”
There’s pressure on Hibs already. The flying start the players all said they wanted has not materialised. But Stubbs was entitled to find consolation in that defeat through the general play of one of his new men. And he is right to be pleased by the performance in this victory of another of them, James Keatings, which was topped off with a fine debut goal. Liam Fontaine, the central defender, insisted his team-mates were not feeling the heat from Rangers’ six-point lead.
“I don’t think we felt under pressure before this game,” he said.
“We knew we had a chance to perform at home and that’s what we went out to do. It’s still quite early in the season. I know we’re behind Rangers but that’s that. We’ll have the weekend off for the international break and look to come back sharp.”
If you were being as hard on the Edinburgh side as that Ibrox interrogator following this victory, you might wonder why they didn’t kill off Raith during their bright opening spell, which gave the Fifers the belief they could further stall Hibs’ progress in a season which has begun stickily. But, while Fontaine is part of a defence that has remained unchanged, albeit with the recent addition to the squad of Darren McGregor, there have been disruptions elsewhere and Stubbs is still working out his best XI.
Following the departure of Scott Allan, the manager tried a different four in midfield and saw this quartet establish a pleasing passing rhythm, especially early on. Henderson was less prominent than the previous week, when he was all over the park, but Dylan McGeouch, pictured, a twinkle-toes in turquoise boots, was the cog for most of the good things.
The disruptions in attack are down to the regular strikers misfiring. Jason Cummings and Dominique Malonga provided a regular flow of goals last season but both have recently found themselves out of the starting line-up. Now with Keatings finally fit for the fray they have the ex-Hearts man as competition.
Fontaine was impressed with the Keatings technique for the opener. “I did say that when he gets on the pitch he’s going to score us goals. That was his first start and you could see the quality, getting the ball out from under his feet and finding the net from outside the box. It’s a great talent.”
Presumably the defender was aware of his new team-mate playing against Hearts last season? “Yeah, but you didn’t hear much about him in those games! No, I’m kidding. In training he’s so sharp. He’s got that ability to get a shot off quick. He’s only going to get even sharper with time on the pitch.
“He’s a bit of a defender’s nightmare, to be honest. He’s a finisher, he can go both ways. You hope to be able to show a striker onto what’s his weaker foot but James has got the ability to use either and that was a nice graceful finish into the corner.”
Fontaine welcomed the competition for places up front, with Stubbs still hopeful of bringing in another striker before the transfer window closes. “Jason and Dom scored a lot of goals last season and could have got a lot more. Adding James is great because you want competition in your squad, especially when you’re looking to achieve things. If the gaffer brings another one in – and he usually gets decisions right – I’m sure it’ll make us even stronger.”
Cummings scored Hibs’ second – a straightforward finish after a cross had eluded his new strike partner – following strong claims for a Raith penalty when Mark Oxley challenged Jon Daly who had intercepted a short backpass. Seemingly unable to locate the halfway line, they crossed it in a meaningful way for the first time after about half an hour and grew steadily bolder. Grant Anderson forced Oxley into a fingertip save and even after Cummings’ goal they had chances, but when presented with the best of them, James Craigen shot weakly.
“I thought that was a very professional performance,”said Fontaine.
“We were saying when we got back in the dressing-room that we felt solid, comfortable and in control, pretty much throughout the game.”
Remembering how Rovers thwarted Hibs three times last season, he insisted: “We need to be like that all the time. When teams like Raith come here and try and frustrate us, we need to win the games and not concede sloppy goals and I thought we did that great.”