A MATTER of weeks ago, James Keatings was an automatic choice for the Hearts team. He would have been there by default anyway, as most of the club’s other strikers were injured, but his form more than justified his inclusion, as he showed by scoring in all four of his club’s league games in December.
Now Género Zeefuik has been signed, Osman Sow and Dale Carrick are back in contention, Soufian El Hassnaoui is close to making a comeback and Gary Oliver has returned from his loan spell with Stenhousemuir. Suddenly Keatings has a lot of competition on his hands.
Dropped for the abandoned game against Rangers when coach Robbie Neilson started Zeefuik up front alongside makeshift striker Callum Paterson, Keatings also looks set to be on the sidelines today, when the Championship leaders are at home to Falkirk.
“That’s football,” the former Hamilton player said. “We’ve got more strikers – the new boy [Zeefuik] came in and stuff like that – so it’s competition. It’s a good thing to have in a club.
“The manager picks the team that’s fit enough to win the game on a Saturday. I’m sure he’s got in his mind the right two for each game and we’ll see where it goes.”
There was a brief spell in the autumn when Neilson seemed close to settling on Sow and El Hassnaoui as his first-choice strike force, but there has been no established partnership since then. Zeefuik’s physical presence makes him a welcome addition to the squad, but it remains to be seen if he and Sow can play together or are deemed too similar.
Relatively short and speedy, Keatings has shown he can play off a big target man – but then so can Carrick. In other words, Neilson can be expected to preach the virtues of patience as he tries to keep his squad as fresh as possible coming into a crucial stage of the season.
“I left Hamilton last season and there was competition there,” Keatings continued. “I played a bit more wide in that team. It’s always good. It keeps you on your toes in training, it pushes you a wee bit further and makes you more determined to get yourself in the team. That’s where it’s down to me.”
In the circumstances, however, it would be understandable if Keatings felt more than a little frustrated by being left out. Having soldiered on at times as a lone front man, he has enjoyed teaming up with Zeefuik, and feels he could benefit from a longer run with the big Dutchman.
“It makes it easier for me with somebody there winning flick-ons for me to run on to,” he said. “I’ll play both of them [that is, in a pair or as a lone striker], I’m not fussed, but obviously it makes it easier with somebody there.
“He’s totally different from me. He’s a big boy, he’ll hold the ball up, and he brings a lot of physicality to the game. It’s good for the team. He links the play up really well.
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“With the injuries, before we were able to sign anybody I had to play up front myself because there was no-one else to play with. I did the job the manager asked me to do: now we’ve got somebody else in to help and thats going to help the team.
“Having a partner up front makes my job easier when I’m playing. I played up front with somebody last year and at the start of this season as well. I’ve shown I can play by myself, but with the big man coming in I can now play off somebody and hopefully get more goals.
“Instead of myself occupying two defenders, he [Zeefuik] occupies two. That gives me a free role at certain times in the game. Playing up front yourself, you’re occupying the back four and going across the four of them, so it’s harder to shut them down and stuff. Whereas if it’s two, one drops off, the other one can go – it helps you out a lot.”
Keatings showed in midweek that he has not lost his touch, scoring twice on his 23rd birthday in the 3-2 win for the under-20s against Hibernian. He opened the scoring early in the first half in that game, but if he plays at all today it is more likely to be towards the end of what should be a tough encounter with fifth-placed Falkirk. Just in case there was any risk of the Hearts players treating this afternoon’s game as a bit of a low-key affair after the week-long build-up to the Rangers match, Neilson has done everything to ensure that they have put last Friday’s game out of their minds.
“They’ve got a lot of good individuals who will cause us a threat, but it’s up to us to go and do what we’ve been doing,” Keatings added about today’s opposition. “We’re refocused. We’re focused on Falkirk. The manager said that in the dressing room straight after the [Rangers] game got called off. We’re focused on Falkirk and that’s what we’ve done all week. The manager is totally focused and he’s making sure every player is totally focused.“