When there is a cup final place to be won, love bombing the person responsible for picking the team could be potentially profitable.
But it is also likely to earn you a whole world of pain when it comes to dressing-room politics. There hasn’t been a lot to joke about in recent days at Hibs, so the casting of James Keatings as the teacher’s pet has at least brought some amusement to the club’s East Mains training base.
It was assumed that Keatings’ decision to run towards manager Alan Stubbs and then leap into his arms after scoring his second goal in their play-off semi-final against Falkirk last week was his way of saying thank you. After all, Stubbs made a big call in selecting Keatings ahead of Jason Cummings, the club’s top goalscorer.
But Keatings claims he wasn’t planning to re-enact a scene from a Mills & Boon novel, it just happened.
Whether such a lavish show of affection cuts any ice with Stubbs remains to be seen. Who he opts for between Keatings and Cummings at this weekend’s William Hill Scottish Cup final against Rangers at Hampden is one dilemma currently occupying the manager. Keatings could not have done much more on his last outing than score twice to overturn the early opening goal conceded to Falkirk’s Blair Alston.
When he departed the scene at 2-2, replaced by Cummings shortly after Luke Leahy’s equaliser, there was still work to do. But not even Keatings could believe how the tie unravelled in the last seconds.
“Jason hit the bar and Stokes had a chance,” he recalled. “I felt as if we were going to get the [next] goal. It came to the last minute, a ball into the box and we didn’t manage to defend it. It was gutting and a hard one to take.”
Highlighting how football fortunes can change in the blink of an eye, Keatings’ outpouring of joy seemed a long time earlier as Bob McHugh pounced to condemn Hibs to another year of second-tier football. It was a brutal, brutal blow and contrasted with the scenes of joy on the touchline as Keatings cavorted with Stubbs after scoring his second goal of the evening.
“I didn’t mean to run and jump into his arms,” protested Keatings, having clearly suffered the consequences of his actions from mocking teammates. “I’ve had pelters for it every day since. When I scored I was delighted. I ran that way and he just happened to be there. I can’t explain it… It was good to score but it counted for nothing.”
Keatings wondered whether even a historic Scottish Cup win can compensate for the pain of staying down. The striker acknowledged how much bringing the trophy back to Easter Road would mean for the club given the length of time that has passed since this was last done.
But the players are sorely aware that their chief aim this season was to return to the top flight. For the first time in three years, Keatings is not savouring a promotion after being on board at Hamilton Accies and Hearts in the previous two seasons.
While he is pained at having missed out on a unique hat-trick he is devastated at what failure means for the club and fans. A cup win on Saturday would at least provide some balm.
“It’s massive for the club and a long time since they’ve won it,” he said, with reference to the Scottish Cup. “But our first aim this year was to get promotion. Winning this would be a massive achievement as well.
“It’s still disappointing we didn’t go up but it would still mean a lot to win it. You hear some of the fans say they’d rather have the cup than promotion but as players we had that target. Our first target was promotion. The cups were a bonus.”
Keatings was on the bench for the 2-1 League Cup final defeat to Ross County in March and didn’t come on at all. For an irregular starter, his dozen goals so far is a healthy return. But Keatings’ tally doesn’t compare with Cummings’ 25 goals, even if the rate at which the latter has been scoring has tailed off in recent weeks.
Stubbs’ decision to choose Keatings for what amounted to a cup final against Falkirk could be a clue to his thinking ahead of this weekend’s game. He might also be conscious of having kept Keatings on the sidelines in the last final, a decision the striker accepted with his usual good grace in public. It seems too cruel to imagine Stubbs would leave Keatings out again this weekend.
“I never expect to play,” said the striker. “It’s the manager’s choice. He picks the team, Saturday will be no different and I’ll respect his decision.”
Aware that he risked being filleted once more by his team-mates, Keatings praised the manager’s attempts to pick the players back up after Friday’s bleak experience.
“The manager’s been good,” he said. “He spoke to us and told us to focus on the cup final. He said we can’t change what’s happened with the league.
“We’re disappointed and we’ve let a lot of people down – the fans and the people at the club. But we have to move on and hopefully the cup final can give them something to celebrate.
“The manager has always been there, leading us. He’s always on the training field, telling us what to do, going through the set-pieces. He’s done that every week. He’s been overloading the set-pieces because we’ve conceded a few recently. I’m sure he’ll keep working on that until we get it right.”