BY IAIN COLLIN – @CCP_sport
JAMES Keatings insists manager Alan Stubbs can nurse his shell-shocked Hibernian squad back to peak condition this week and inspire them to make Scottish Cup history.
Keatings has confessed the bitter disappointment of losing Friday’s play-off semi-final to Falkirk in such gut-wrenching circumstances has hit the Easter Road club hard.
The striker, who has won promotion two years running with Hearts and Hamilton Accies, did not leave his house all weekend as he attempted to recover from the crushing blow to his club’s ambitions.
The 24-year-old is not about to belittle the chance to become the first Hibs team to win the cup since 1902, but confesses victory over Rangers on Saturday would not make up for allowing their number one priority to slip through their grasp.
However, the one-time Celtic trainee insists Stubbs has already been hard at work trying to use the prospect of Hampden glory to inspire his crestfallen players to finish a dispiriting campaign on a massive high.
“I was hurting, personally, and so were the rest of the boys,” said Keatings. “We got a couple of days off to gather our thoughts and came back in on Monday. We’re looking forward to the cup final now.
“The manager’s been good. He spoke to us and told us to focus on the cup final and that 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.
“Rangers are a very good team. We’ll go in with the game-plan that the manager’s put across. Hopefully we can stick to that and come out as winners.”
Keatings, who netted a double on Friday, was speaking four days on from Bob McHugh’s heartbreaking injury-time winner for Falkirk, but his despondency was palpable as he surveyed a season that at one time promised so much but could end up delivering nothing.
Stubbs was denigrated for suggesting a few months ago that Hibs could land a treble and has been left with egg on his face as, first, they lost the League Cup final to Ross County and, then, the chance of promotion slipped away.
And it is the failure to go up to the Premiership that has been dominating Keatings’ thoughts in recent days, which is understandable given the ramifications it could have on the finances of the club and in the make-up of the squad and the chances of Stubbs remaining as manager.
“Our job at the start of the season was promotion and we’ve not managed to do it,” added Keatings. “We’ve let ourselves down. We’ve got a good enough squad so we should have achieved it but we’ve fallen short.
“It’s a feeling that we’ve let people down. I felt totally deflated by it.
“The Scottish Cup is massive for the club and it’s a long time since they’ve won it, but our first aim this year was to get promotion.
“Winning this would be a massive achievement as well – 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.”
Saturday will be the last game for Hibs for on-loan Celtic pair Anthony Stokes and Liam Henderson and could yet turn out to be the swan-song of plenty more should finances dictate or players decide they do not want to play Championship football again next term.
However, Keatings, who has another year on his contract at Easter Road, is hopeful they can retain most of the current team to piece together another promotion push next year.
“We have a quality squad, which I definitely think is of Premiership quality,” he commented. “People can see that from the results we’ve had against Premiership teams this year. We’ve beaten and outplayed most of them.
“A lot of teams will want players from here, which might be good for individuals but we want to keep most of the team together and push to get the club up next year.
“The manager is quality, everyone says it. There’s no doubt he’ll be linked to a lot of jobs but I’m sure he’s focused on this team and on winning the cup.
“There will be more about other clubs, I’m sure, but he’s got a contract and I’m sure he’ll stick to it.”