Interview: James Keatings on going from Hearts to Hibs, winning the Scottish Cup and the dark, dark days which followed

Every so often the photograph turns up of James Keatings celebrating the most dramatic Scottish Cup final triumph for many a year, maybe 114 years. It’s cherished by Hibernian fans and is hashtagged #HeRanTheWrongWay.

James Keatings goes his own way to celebrate David Gray's winning goal for Hibs in the 2016 Scottish Cup final. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
James Keatings goes his own way to celebrate David Gray's winning goal for Hibs in the 2016 Scottish Cup final. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

While David Gray turned right upon heading the injury-time winner against Rangers and everyone else charged after the captain and straight into the second row of the crowd at the corner flag, knocking off a policeman’s cap in the did-that-just-happen? delirium, Keats turned left. He’s equally joyful in the image but he’s all on his lonesome.

Catching up with the striker at Inverness Caley Thistle as he looks forward to trying to make it four years in a row that his former club have failed to get reacquainted with the old pot, it’s obvious he is in a good place and enjoying his football again. But, as he recounts his life since 21 May, 2016, it is equally obvious that his swerve wasn’t entirely out of character.

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The following season had almost as happy an ending as Hibs finally climbed out of the Championship. “We were going back up to the top league as champs,” Keatings explains. “After the last game against St Mirren there was to be a night out. All the guys were putting on their clubbing gear but I stayed in my tracksuit. I went home, told them I wasn’t feeling well, which was just a cover-up… ”

James Keatings celebrates with Inverness. His aim this season is to help a fourth club win promotion to the top flight. Picture: Bill Murray / SNS

While Hibs were tussling with Dundee United and Falkirk for the title, Keatings was battling depression. You couldn’t tell him that he had a lot to be happy about. “I was playing football at a great club. I’d won the Scottish Cup, something I’d dreamed about as a kid. I was earning good money, not gambling it away. I had a nice house, a nice car and my wee girl. But I was still managing to turn every positive into a negative.

“I would beat myself up over the smallest thing. I put too much pressure on myself. I hammered myself too hard and basically I self-destructed. Everything just came crashing down.”

We’ll return to Keatings’ darkest hour but he is keen to accentuate the positive about life in the Highlands, even though he is just become Scotland’s most talked-about footballer following the red-card ruling which has astonished many in the game and will keep him out of another cup final.

Caley Thistle, though, are bidding for the Premiership and there’s the not inconsiderable matter of Friday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final against Hibs. From the other end of the lounge in the main stand at ICT, his manager John Robertson shouts Hibs-themed abuse at our man and your correspondent, but we all know that for the Hearts legend, the Hibees are the love that dare not speak its name. Keatings, now 28, was thrilled when the draw paired new with old. It’s a repeat of the last-eight tie the season Hibs lifted the cup when he scored a fine goal in a drawn game.

James Keatings celebrates scoring for Inverness Caledonian Thistle as he bids to help his fourth different club win promotion to the Premiership. Picture: SNS.

“I want to win with Caley Thistle this time but Hibs will always be special to me,” he says. “That changing room was amazing, full of characters and nonsense and togetherness which ultimately produced a wonderful day. I looked in on the training centre recently to say hello to Tam and Joyce [McCourt, long-serving husband-and-wife kit supremos] and Paul [Hanlon] said the same: you’re lucky if you experience that kind of group once in your career.”

Nonsense? That would be Jason Cummings’ department and Keatings beams: “I was talking to him just yesterday. A real character. There aren’t enough guys like him in the game. Mind you, my first impressions weren’t good.”

This was the 2013-14 Premiership Playoff final, Hibs vs Keatings’ Hamilton Accies. “In football you hear things. The word about Hibs at that time was their changing-room was in absolute tatters. Their players’ mindset wasn’t good so we thought we had a wee chance.” Hibs, though, won the first leg at New Douglas Park, Cummings’ double introducing Scottish football to the 18-year-old’s wacky world after he dismissed the skill involved in a rocket shot as being “just like opening a tin of beans”.

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“We’d never heard of him before. When he said that in his post-match interview the whole Hamilton changing-room was like: ‘Who is this cocky little t**t?’ That was motivation for us. We thought he was being disrespectful.” In the second leg Accies wiped out the deficit, won on penalties when Cummings missed from the spot, and on an afternoon of doom-laden thunderstorms it was as if Hibs had been pulled down into a swamp, scaly tentacles round their legs. A can-opener couldn’t save them this time.

“We had a party to be at but we couldn’t get out of Easter Road and on to our bus,” continues Keatings. “The fans were raging and were trying to rip open the doors of the stadium. The Hibs boys trying to get to their cars were being pelted with stones.”

Keatings didn’t know it, and right at that moment would almost certainly have run a mile from the prospect, but in 12 months’ time he would be playing for this convulsing club. He became a Hibee by first becoming a Jambo, opting to stay in the Championship with the also-relegated Hearts.

“No disrespect to Hamilton, but Hearts were a big club, albeit they’d been in administration. It was the Championship of Hibs, Rangers and Hearts but we won it. I scored crucial goals and did well. But in the Premiership I was only going to be Hearts’ fourth-choice striker. I couldn’t complain about being behind Osman Sow at that time but the club were bringing in Juanma and Gavin Reilly and I thought I was better than them. I backed myself.”

This is something Keatings hasn’t always done in his career. Three times after helping clubs achieve Premiership status he has opted to find another second-tier outfit. “I know,” he smiles. “Folk say about me: ‘Championship player’. Well, I did play in the Premiership second-time around with Hamilton but they were up against it just about every week and that didn’t suit my game.” His big regret, though, is not staying at Hibs. “I scored the best goal of my career against Falkirk in the second minute of injury time to more or less make the title safe and right after the game Neil Lennon wanted me to sign a new two-year deal.” Keatings’ steep decline would come after that.

Life at Hibs began well with a strike on his league debut. John McGinn and Liam Henderson had just arrived, too, and Lennon’s predecessor Alan Stubbs would try where possible to play Keatings and former adversary Cummings up front together. “I remember when I was at Hearts lining up against Jason and we were both knocking them in and on exactly the same number of goals. He said to me: ‘You think you can live with me the day?’

“When I went to Hibs we became great pals. You’ve seen that clip of him wrestling [with grappler-cum-actor Grado]? Me and him wrestled every day. Each time he said he was going to beat me but he never ever did. Once we broke a wall, the Gyprock came crashing down. Lenny went spare!”

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Back in the cup-winning season, Anthony Stokes’ arrival at the midway point threatened Keatings’ starting place, although when he got the chance he seemed to be a better foil for Stokes than Cummings, perhaps being more willing to take a secondary role than his chum. There are two fellows, I say, who don’t look like they’ve ever been plagued by self-doubt. “Too true,” laughs Keatings.

It was after he missed an open goal against Hearts, coming off the bench in the fifth-round replay, that Keatings showed himself to be a player who wasn’t quite so carefree. Writing a book about the cup triumph I learned from Stubbs that the managerial arm-round-the-shoulder was much needed in Keatings’ case and that night the player had been inconsolable.

“The miss still haunts me,” he admits. “Ultimately it didn’t matter, we won the game, but I would loved to have scored because I took a bit of abuse switching from Hearts to Hibs. One time in town when I was going for food this Hearts fan jumped out of a car and threatened to break my legs. Another time I was with my daughter Faith and a group of boys shouted ‘Judas’ at me.

“Things go wrong on the football pitch all the time. For guys like Jason and Stokesy and many other players they’re water off a duck’s back. But I would always take them to heart.”

So when did it hit him that he was having mental health problems? “It wasn’t right away. I’m afraid I was one of these folk who was a bit sceptical about the issues. I didn’t understand them.”

Lennon has spoken candidly about his own battle with depression. Keatings remembers him having “low days” at Easter Road but by then the player was peering into his own vortex of despair. “If I did something good I would search for the bad in it. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating. As a result I had no energy and everything became ten times harder to do.

“As I said, the vibe at Hibs was great. Everyone joined in everything, there were no wee groups. I liked a joke but for me that was a front. When I got home at night I was glad because I didn’t have to put on a brave face anymore. I stopped socialising and seeing friends.”

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Rather than stay with a manager who, while at Celtic had brought the teenaged Keatings to the fringes of the first team before a cruciate injury interrupted progress, he was on the move again, next to Dundee United. But this did nothing for his mood. “I’d be standing in the tunnel at Tannadice and in my head going through all the bad things I’d done in the previous game.” He tells me how black his world became but asks that I don’t print the details, other than that glancing at the photo of Faith he carries on his phone saved him.

Among many he thanks his United manager Ray McKinnon and his former agent Alan Holdsworth for helping in his hour of need. Holdsworth fixed him up with a psychologist. He read up about mental health cases on social media, contacting some of the victims to share stories. Stubbs remains a great supporter of his former charge. Lennon, when he learned about his plight, told him to contact him anytime he needed to talk. In Robbo at ICT he has a manager who believes in him, having tried to sign him a few times before eventually succeeding. His relationship with Faith’s mother broke up but he has a new partner in Laura.

In the last few days the wider football community have rallied round Keatings over the ban ruling him out of the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Cup final. Many will know how setbacks, seemingly small, can affect him and this is a sizable one.

Still, he can look forward to a return to Easter Road. “My first time back there was with Hamilton and the fans gave me a lovely reception. I won’t forget that.” He stresses that he’s heading there on Friday night to win, ICT being his team now, but in truth it’s not difficult to prise one more 21/5/16 yarn out of him.

“Just before the final we’d lost the Premiership Playoff semi to Falkirk which was gutting, but the boys still believed that after putting so much into the season and beating so many top-flight teams we could still have a happy ending. I scored the two goals against Falkirk and was hopeful I might start in the cup final but when I found out I wasn’t, the next 15 minutes were absolutely devastating for me.

“Stokesy, if we’re being honest, hadn’t been great for us until [the final against] Rangers. But he showed his big-match talent that day. We all said to him afterwards: ‘Thank goodness you turned up for one game!’ When I wasn’t in the first 11 I had to sort myself out. If I was going to get a chance [from the bench] I had to be ready. Thankfully I did and, aye, at the end I sprinted away from everyone else. I don’t know why; I was just lost in the moment.

“The victory parade was out of this world and the party went on for several days. Scenes! One night we were definitely at John McGinn’s flat with his mum and dad but the rest is a blur. I wore my cup final suit right up until the moment we stopped celebrating. By then it could probably have taken a stroll up Leith Walk by itself. And I got a tattoo: the date and the time of the winning goal. Sketched by a Rangers fan, funnily enough!

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“These days I try not to beat myself up. Maybe the odd wee dig – old habits die hard – but that’s all. I’m trying to run the right way now.”