JAMES Keatings had no reservations when he was offered the chance to cross the capital divide. For him, the only considerations were footballing ones.
The former Hearts striker needed to hear that Hibs have the ambition and the potential to go for automatic promotion to the Premiership next term and he needed to be assured that he would get a fair crack at playing his part. In the past two seasons he has helped first Hamilton and then Hearts make that step up the leagues, earning interest from top-flight teams in the process. but just as he turned them down last summer, he has again snubbed their overtures.
“A lot of Premiership clubs were after me as well. But I just felt after speaking to the manager and people at the club that this was the best opportunity to take my career forward,” he said as he and Dan Carmichael formed the advance party in what Hibernian hope will be a flurry of reinforcements. Desperate to regain their place among Scotland’s elite clubs, the Easter Road club see Keatings as the kind of striker who can capitalise on the number of openings they plan to create and prevent another season of missed opportunities in cup and league.
“This is a great opportunity for me coming to a club like Hibs,” he said. “I will do my best here. I have done my best the past two years for the clubs I have played for and I am going to give it 100 per cent here.
“I knew I would upset a few fans but at the end of the day I need to think about my career and my football. And this was the best move for my career, I think. The facilities here and the way they have developed players over the past season like Scotty Allan and Jason Cummings, I think I can be the next one.”
He is not the first player to swap Tynecastle for Leith, with Cummings having already made that journey across the city. Like the lad who finished Championship top scorer last term, Keatings was considered surplus to requirements at Hearts; like Cummings he hopes to prove the decision-makers wrong.
“I knew I would upset a few fans but I need to think about my career and my football”James Keatings
The 23 year old, who was also previously on the books of Celtic and had a spell on loan at St Johnstone, netted 11 times for Robbie Neilson’s title-winning side from 18 starts and 15 sub appearances but believes he should have had more game time and is confident that would have reaped even greater rewards.
“I came in when there were no other strikers and I scored goals and I won games for them,” he added. “The manager came out and said I carried the team for that period of time.
“I just felt when everybody got fit I was pushed to the side and I wasn’t allowed back in. But that’s just the way football is, it’s his opinion and he’ll pick the team that was best for him.
“But the Hearts boys understand what I have done, they played alongside me and they saw what I did there when I was playing. I was close to a few of the boys in there and they knew what was going on. Obviously you have your chats with your team-mates and they have their own issues as well. But it was a frustrating time for me at Hearts near the end of it and that was the big factor.”
If his actions hadn’t made things pretty clear, Neilson spelled matters out for Keatings towards the end of the campaign. The Hearts head coach made it clear to the player he could leave but it was only last week that he opted for Hibs.
“They didn’t know anything about me coming here,” said Keatings. “I think everybody thought I was going to sign for a Premiership club. It was close, it was very close. But I thought coming to Hibs was the best move for me to make.”
He sought the advice of his former manager at Hamilton but it was his new boss, Alan Stubbs, who swung the decision in Hibs’ favour.
“I spoke to an ex-manager of mine, Alex Neil. He had a lot of good things to say about here,” Keatings explained. “After speaking to him I really wanted to come here. He didn’t push me in any direction, he left it to me. But he put a few things across and it was good to chat with him.”
But after Stubbs drove from Liverpool on his day off to meet him, the decision was made.
“The manager made me feel wanted, valued,” he said. “He just made me feel really good. Premiership football is obviously the aim for every young Scottish player. You want to play at the highest level and that is our highest level so it was a big thought in my mind, but after speaking to the manager here and people in the background I don’t think it was a big u-turn for me to come here.
“I am starting off with a clean slate and I’ll fight for my place here. Any player just wants a fair crack of the whip and if you’re playing well you’ll play, if not then you don’t play, that’s the way football is. This is a team that creates a lot of chances and that’s my game, getting in the box. I can create goals as well and I can take set-pieces. So hopefully if I get chances in the box I’ll score goals.”
There were goals throughout the Hibs team last term but it is weighing in with them consistently, at key times, which will decide whether they can surpass last term’s final outcome of near but yet so far.
“I’ll play in the Premiership yet, that’s my aim,” said Keatings. “Hopefully it’s with Hibs next season. I’m surprised they didn’t go up this time around. I thought they would have gone up through the play-offs, I thought they were the stand-out team. They played football the right way all throughout the season but in the play-offs they fell a wee bit short. But hopefully this time they will go up.
“I did it with Hamilton two years ago, Hearts last season and now Hibs this season – I’m aiming for same thing and I know the club are aiming for the same thing and that’s to go up.
“It will be a tough league to get out of, it always is with the likes of Rangers, Falkirk, St Mirren and Queen of the South. But I have got a really good feeling about it – you saw the way they played last season, even against us at Hearts. They play great football and I have no doubt we can do a ‘Hearts’ next season. We have players in this squad who can live up to that, no bother at all.”