James Keatings’ last two Hibernian performances have exhibited some of the traits of his team’s season. Underwhelming one minute, peerlessly brilliant the next, with costly lapses of concentration thrown into the mix.
The striker came off the bench for the injured Andrew Shinnie in Saturday’s Ladbrokes Championship visit of second-placed Falkirk and won the game for his side.
His laser-guided free-kick was headed in by Efe Ambrose as the leaders went ahead, and he then conjured up a moment of sheer quality to net a 92nd-minute winner.
Keatings let himself down in between, however, although no-one would probably have noticed had he not owned up.
The former Hearts player candidly admitted that he should have been marking Craig Sibbald when the midfielder nodded in a 77th-minute equaliser.
In his own words, Keatings endured a personal horror show in the previous weekend’s 2-2 draw with Dumbarton, admitting head coach Neil Lennon was fully justified in demoting him to the bench.
Just like his side, it is difficult to know what to expect on any given day.
Lennon has not been shy in berating below-par performances by his team, and there have been a few. But Saturday was significant. Allied to Morton’s loss to Dunfermline, Hibs moved ten points clear at the summit with seven games left. Jim Duffy’s Ton, who are third on goal difference having played a match less, are the visitors to Easter Road on Wednesday. Hibs have the finishing line in sight.
Keatings gave an honest account of his day’s work. “I was kicking myself when they scored because Craig Sibbald was my runner from the corner,” he said. I’d just set up the goal for Efe Ambrose and I had let a goal in at the other end.
“I said straight away after the game when I went in that it was my mistake at the corner. A few of the boys were having a go at (goalkeeper) Ross Laidaw but I told them it wasn’t Ross’s fault, it was that I lost Sibbald.”
Keatings’ contribution in the attacking third was priceless, however. Climbing off the bench just seconds before the break, his pinpoint delivery was guided into the net by the head of on-loan Celtic defender Ambrose in the 75th minute.
After Sibbald stole in at the near post to head home Fraser Aird’s corner two minutes later, Keatings came up with a moment of magic deep into stoppage time.
Falkirk defender Aaron Muirhead’s body shape at the corner of the box suggested that he envisaged Keatings trying to whip in a left-footed cross. Suddenly the forward shifted the ball to create space on his right. There was still much work to do but the 25-year-old curled an exquisite shot beyond the outstretched Robbie Thomson into the top corner. “That may be a huge goal in the context of the season,” remarked Hibs head coach Neil Lennon.
The winning strike was all the more satisfying for Keatings given the belittling comments he received on the pitch. “I heard them saying that ‘he’s all left foot’ and it stuck in my head,” he said. “I don’t know who it was but they were saying I was all left foot so that made my mind up.
“The next time I got the ball I went on my right and caught it with my bad foot and it’s flown in. I couldn’t believe it – but I don’t think they could believe it either. It was as good and as important a goal as I’ve scored in my career.
“I couldn’t argue with the manager leaving me out. I drove home with my dad, who is the worst person I could go home with after having a bad game.
“I told him it was my worst game since I signed for Hibs. I had a chance to make amends and I’m delighted I did that.”
Falkirk have been a tough nut to crack for Hibs at Easter Road. This was the Leith side’s first victory over them at home in eight matches. Peter Houston’s side remain second on goal difference but Morton have two games in hand.
Midfielder Mark Kerr, pictured, admits finishing runners-up and avoiding an additional play-off round is now their main focus.
He said: “Last year Hibs got battered off the park by Raith Rovers in two (play-off) games and then came to us days later.
“In the first ten minutes at our park, in the second leg, two of their boys went off injured, or one went off injured and the other was signalling that he was toiling. That’s down to the amount of games so it is big.
“Of course you want the easiest route possible and that is obviously having two less games, but if we don’t it will be our own fault. We need to win the games from now to the end of the season.”