Hibs striker James Keatings relishes return to Tynecastle

Hibernian's James Keatings will return to Tynecastle for Saturday's League Cup semi-final. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

Hibernian's James Keatings will return to Tynecastle for Saturday's League Cup semi-final. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

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Hibernian striker James Keatings will head back to Tynecastle on Saturday for the first time since he crossed the city divide in the summer.

Having helped Hearts to the Championship title last term, he swapped the west end of the capital for a fresh start in Leith, in the hope of securing more regular first-team football while, he insists, still giving himself a chance of winning silverware.

While he has faced strong competition for a place in Alan Stubbs’ team, his dream of lifting a trophy could move a step closer, if he and his Easter Road colleagues can overcome St Johnstone in the League Cup semi-final on neutral turf this weekend.

The Leith club have found the Hearts stadium less than philanthropic in capital head-to-heads but with back-to-back cup ties on the horizon, including the Scottish Cup derby the following weekend, there is a belief among the current Hibs squad that the old Gorgie ground may be in more munificent mood.

“It’s just another stadium and another game for us, though it’s obviously a massive one,” said the 24-year-old. “I am looking forward to playing the game and hopefully reaching the final.

“Personally I’m not fussed where we play the game. It’s a good pitch, or at least it was last time I was on it. It will be strange to see three sides of the stadium full of Hibs fans but it’s good we’ll have that backing and hopefully they have a big influence.

“Someone said we’d been allocated the home dressing room so it won’t take me long to settle in. I can go and sit at my old peg! Given I played there last year it’s all good.”

A compact arena, the close proximity of the stands to the pitch can generate a high-octane vibe and having played there in big games before, Keatings is looking forward to more of the same.

“I think the best one I played in front of was against Rangers. It was brilliant. The fans are really close to the pitch so you hear everything. It’s been known for the atmosphere for years now. It lives up to the hype.”

Living up to the billing is something Keatings has been trying to do since he got his start at Celtic as a kid and it is something Hibs are desperate to do. They have laughed off pre-match assertions that they will start Saturday’s match as the favourites, pointing to the fact they are up against a team not only from a higher league but also with a more recent claim to silverware. But, having already ousted Aberdeen and Dundee United from the League Cup to reach the semi-final of the first major cup competition of the season, Stubbs’ men were never going to slip in as massive underdogs.

“I think it’s mind games from Tommy Wright,” said Keatings, who knows the St Johnstone manager and the majority of his players well enough to know they deserve respect.

“They’re in the league above us and sitting in a good position. They might not be in the best of form but they’re in the league above us for a reason.

“I spent six months on loan at St Johnstone, when Tommy Wright was assistant to Steve Lomas. It was a good time and my first experience of first-team football. A lot of the same boys are still there. They’ve been in this situation so they’ll be used to it. They know what it takes to win the Scottish Cup.”

Coming through the ranks at Celtic, it was at McDiarmid Park that Keatings got his first taste of first-team football in the top flight. That was four years ago, as he was returning from a cruciate ligament injury, and it gave him the boost in confidence needed to push on. Guys like Liam Craig and Chris Millar were a big part in that, he says, but he still wants to ruin their weekend.

Spells at Hamilton and then Hearts followed but having struggled to convince Tynecastle coach Robbie Neilson he was worthy of a consistent run in the team, he has been determined to persuade his capital counterpart. Injury curtailed his involvement early on and while he has gone on to make 18 appearances, 13 in the starting line-up, contributing seven goals, he has faced serious competition from a conveyor belt of striking options.

That battle was one reason for Dominique Malonga’s departure this week, but despite the much-vaunted arrival of Anthony Stokes until the end of the season, Keatings is still backing himself.

“I was with [Stokes] at Celtic, when I was coming through as a young boy. Even then I looked up to him as a player in my position. It’s a massive statement from the club to bring in a player of his quality.

“Last season I had competition for places at Hearts so I think I’ve got used to it. It’s just one of those things and every manager wants to strengthen their team. Bringing in Stokes, you know he has some qualities that others don’t have and it only increases that competition for places. I want to challenge myself and it’s going to be a massive challenge to get into the team here.”

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