James Keatings’ ruthless side is increasingly evident as Hearts pull away into the distance atop the Scottish Championship.
That isn’t a coincidence. After an injury-interrupted start to the season, the little striker has scored three in the last three matches. Like his club, he is building serious momentum.
The league campaign reaches its halfway point this weekend when Hearts travel to Livingston for the 18th round of matches sitting 12 points clear and unbeaten. Tuesday night’s 2-0 win at Cowdenbeath increased their previous nine-point advantage by three, with Keatings producing another instinctive finish for his seventh goal in 16 appearances.
Hamstring and groin problems hindered the 22-year-old earlier in the campaign, but he is now injury-free and showing the kind of scoring exploits which attracted Hearts in the first place. Fellow strikers Osman Sow, Soufian El Hassnaoui and Dale Carrick are sidelined with injury problems, leaving Keatings to lead the attack.
He is doing so with aplomb and, as the man in possession of the shirt, is making the most of his opportunity. His form makes him a difficult man to dislodge and his finishing is of the highest quality. “This is my chance after getting into the team,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I’ve had my injuries, but I’m getting a run now and I’m showing why Hearts brought me here. I’m showing I can score goals.
“Obviously I feel sorry for the boys who are injured. You don’t want to see your team-mates out there injured. However, I want to be on that pitch. I want to be in that penalty box scoring goals. I’m getting the opportunity and showing I can do it.
“All I can do is go out there and prove myself and I’m doing that at the moment. I’m showing I can score goals but there are other parts to my game. I can create and I’ve got a few assists this season. There’s my set-pieces as well.”
Keatings saw a 25-yard free-kick rebound off the base of the post minutes after he opened the scoring at Central Park on Tuesday. Goals against Cowdenbeath, Alloa, Queen of the South, Livingston and Raith Rovers are welcome, however he is eager to prove his scoring exploits against bigger clubs. That chance should come next month in matches against Hibs and Rangers.
“I want to play in the big games. I’ve been injured at the start of the season and missed big matches,” he said. “It’s hard when I’m sitting in the stand watching my team-mates play. I want to be out there involved in the big games. I came on against Rangers a few weeks ago so hopefully I have no more injuries for the rest of the season and I get to play in these big matches.
“Going to Cowdenbeath on Tuesday night, it was a horrible game with the pitch and everything but we got the three points. I’m always looking for positions in the box. I had a look behind me and saw where the defenders were going when [Adam Eckersley’s cross] was coming in. They were trying to shut down the front post so I peeled away. I managed to get on the end of the ball and put it in the net.”
Callum Paterson’s volley secured the win, but don’t expect anyone at Tynecastle to relax on their 12-point advantage. “We’re 12 points clear and we’re nearly at the halfway stage. If you’d said that to us at the start of the season, we’d have taken it all day long,” admitted Keatings.
“We’re delighted to be in this position but there is still a long way to go. You know what it’s like in this league. The bottom team can beat the top team on an off day and stuff like that. We’ll keep concentrating, doing what the manager wants us to do in training and working in the proper way. If we keep that going, I can’t see us going far wrong.”
Hearts players have heard all the whispering outwith the club about the Championship title race being over already. They aren’t paying any heed. “It’s definitely not over. There is still half of the season to go,” said Keatings. “Rangers and Hibs will be looking to strengthen in the transfer window so it’s up to us to stay on our toes. We want to stretch this gap as far as it can go.
“I was at Hamilton last season and, when I came to Hearts, I saw the standard of play and the quality of individuals. I could see they were going to really challenge. The league got better with other teams strengthening as well. It was always going to be a tough league but we’re happy where we are and we’ll keep going.”
Livingston are one of only two clubs – the other being Celtic – to beat Robbie Neilson’s side this season. They won 4-1 in a Petrofac Training Cup tie between the clubs in August but have since slipped to the bottom of the Championship. They were deducted five points for financial irregularities and last week dispensed with manager John McGlynn.
Mark Burchill is in charge until the end of the season at a club which doesn’t have their problems to seek. However, Hearts are wary of the wounded animal in West Lothian. “You don’t look at where they are in the league,” said Keatings. “We want to go there and treat it like we’re playing a team at the top, put a top performance in and get the three points.
“When we go into games, there’s no pressure on the other team just now because of the run we’re on. We’re unbeaten so every team is going to come in 100 per cent against us.
It’s easier for them because they’re under no pressure, but it makes it very hard for us because the opposition are going to go at it.
“As a player, you want to be in the winning teams and fighting for titles. It’s brilliant when you’re at the top but you need to stay there and that’s always a challenge every single week. Teams are coming to beat you so they can say they were the ones to beat you.”