AS AN 18-year-old starlet with Celtic, James Keatings was on the verge of breaking into the first team along with the likes of James Forrest. That was back in season 2010-2011, when then manager Neil Lennon had just taken over and was building his own side, with Keatings set to play a part.
A snapped cruciate ligament put paid to his Celtic ambitions, and this week, as Keatings and his Hearts colleagues prepared for today’s Scottish Cup match against his old club, he took time out to ponder what might have been.
“The season I was about to break through, I was on the bench at Tynecastle for Celtic,” said Keatings. “That was the season when I was having a real go and the manager said I would have been there or thereabouts.
“That season I was at my best in the Under 19s and I was looking forward to getting in about the first team. But the injury came along and it was a serious one. It stopped me.
“I signed a three-year contract a couple of weeks after I did my cruciate, so I did have that time to get back. But it took me a year to get back on the training pitch after the injury. That’s a long time out.
“The coaches and physios at Celtic really helped me. I had a long period of frustration and that was the worst time in my football career.
“It was the sports science people who picked me up on the low days. They were brilliant with me. It came at a bad time for me, but these things happen in football. I had three years at Celtic after that, but I never broke through.”
Keatings went on loan to St Johnstone to get first-team experience, which helped him to decide that he would have to leave the club which he had joined at the age of ten. He became a Hamilton Academical, and was an immediate success.
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“It got to the stage where a decision had to be made,” said Keatings. “I got to the age where I had to play.
“Being there for such a long time, from when I was ten years old, I was holding on to that.
“But, at the end of it, you need to do what’s best for you – and what was best for me was to leave and play first-team football.
“My head was focused on it straight away. I had a taste of it on loan at St Johnstone and when you get that, you want more.
“You don’t want to be playing development football where there’s no crowds. I knew where I wanted to go.
“I had to go and try somewhere else and Hamilton gave me that opportunity. That led me here, so it’s all good.
“I’ve had niggles since the start of the season and it’s been frustrating. But it was great to play a part against Rangers and, hopefully, I’ll be involved on Sunday.”
Hearts fans will be pleased with his next statement: “Hamilton last season was a stepping stone to get back to where I was. I feel I’m getting there now. This season I’m close to where I was back then.”
His manager, Robbie Neilson, agreed that Keatings’ best is yet to come. “The reason we brought him here is for the long term. It’s not just for six months or a year. He has signed a contract on a two-year deal and we hope to get him in the Premiership and I am sure he will score goals.
“I noticed him at the beginning of last season when he scored a lot of goals at Hamilton. Then he got an injury and they brought in Scotland and Curier and he found it hard to get back in after his injury, but he had scored 15 goals in the first 15 games in the Championship, so we knew when he came up that he was a guy who could score goals at that level.
“Some guys can score goals in League One, but can’t do it in the Championship, some guys can do it in the SPL, but can’t do it in the Championship. It’s a different kind of football. We knew that getting him in, he will score goals for us at this level, playing against teams that he played against last season.”
Neilson appreciates that Keatings is a hard worker and spends extra time honing his skills with the dead ball.
The manager said: “He has great delivery from free kicks for a start and also from free kicks around the box. He practises it all the time on the training ground. Also his work-rate had been great, putting pressure on the strikers that are in at the moment.”
With Osman Sow a likely absentee, Keatings may well play a part today, but he is not one to buy into that footballing cliché about being motivated to do more against an old club.
“I just take it as another game,” said Keatings. “It’s obviously a massive game and you always want to test yourself against the best players.
“They are the top team in Scotland and the full dressing room here wants to show what they can do against the best.
“With the way we’ve been going we’ve got a lot of confidence.
“But it’s a massive game against a quality team and it will be a tough test.
“I’ll definitely celebrate if I score against them on Sunday. I’d celebrate every goal no matter who it’s against.
“I treat every goal as if it’s my last – that’s just the type of player I am.”
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