A BLOSSOMING winning mentality and a battery of forwards bagging goals in lethal fashion is proving an intoxicating brew for Hibernian right now. Understandable, then, that there might be the temptation to look back on a stonking, three-victory week that concluded with an evisceration of a competitive St Mirren. However, it is looking forward that will cause the pulses of the Leith club’s followers to quicken.
The home meeting with Livingston that will take place a week on Tuesday – having effectively been delayed for a couple of days because of the international weekend – will give Alan Stubbs’ men the opportunity to move within two points of Rangers at the top of the Championship. That is a remarkable turnaround. Afternoons such as the one that panned out at Paisley, and which extended Hibs outstanding form to 12 wins and one draw from 13 outings, are precisely why Stubbs’ team are genuine contenders for their league title – and a League Cup that they have a semi-final to anticipate following their midweek dismantling of Dundee United on the back of beating Rangers.
James Keatings’ second career hat-trick underpinned a win that was ultimately convincing. It proved so because, after they found themselves in a spot of bother by conceding the opening goal, they blasted their way out of trouble.
“Today Keats will get the plaudits and we’ve had Jason [Cummings] and Dom [Dominique Malonga] get the plaudits in recent weeks,” said Stubbs. “If we can keep sharing it around I’ll be more than happy. I didn’t think we started particularly well but it was great to get the equaliser so soon after going behind. Then there was only going to be one outcome. They are full of confidence, playing some really good football. Not just with the ball but in their desire to get it back.”
The encounter turned in the 10th minute – two minutes after Ian Murray’s struggling team had capitalised on bright early play with a fine Sean Kelly dig from the edge of the box that eluded Mark Oxley. John McGinn, on his return to his former club, jinked his way down the right flank, played the ball to Keatings and he slipped through to Cummings who tucked the ball into the far corner with aplomb.
A quick free-kick from Liam Henderson then allowed Keatings to ghost in and scoop the ball past Jamie Langfield as the interval approached, before the forward produced a glorious finish when he smeared a shot into the top corner from 20 yards three minutes later.
A disgruntled Murray admitted the second half “petered out” but further punishment was inflicted when Henderson was brought down in the penalty box to provide Keatings with his third, his successful spot-kick a source of consternation for his team-mate Malonga, who wanted to take the award. “The skipper [David Gray] said how it was and I was confident stepping up, even though I missed two last season,” said Keatings.
Those two misses, of course, came in maroon – the striker also scored a hat-trick for Hearts last season – and his efforts yesterday saw the striker serenaded by the 1,500 Hibs fans with chants of “he used to be a Jambo but he’s alright now”.
“That’s not a bad song,” he said. “I knew it would be hard to win them over coming where I came from but if I keep scoring hopefully they will keep singing.”
If St Mirren keep failing to win home games, meanwhile, their supporters are liable to keep booing, as they did even at the interval on an afternoon that witnessed Alex Miller return to the club’s dug-out as assistant almost three decades on from his time as manager.
Murray was irritated by the suggestion his team are drifting further from the play-off positions the club have made a must after their relegation from the top flight. He pointed out the gap hasn’t grown in recent weeks but the length of time since a home win has done.
“If you look at the home form over the last two years it has been a prolonged problem but there would be no better time to change that than against our rivals Morton in 13 days’ time.”