Three years ago, James Keatings had just finished top scorer in the SPL Under-19 league and helped Celtic pip a Hearts side containing the likes of Scott Robinson, Jamie Walker, David Smith and Jason Holt to the title.
It is safe to say, Hearts’ summer recruit from Hamilton was one of the brightest prospects in the country as a teenager. Yet, having turned 22 in January, Keatings has made only four substitute appearances in Scotland’s top flight – on loan at St Johnstone – and just 50 first-team appearances in total, most of which came with Accies. By contrast, Robinson, two months younger than Keatings, has already amassed 60 Premiership starts and has made over 100 first-team appearances in total for Hearts.
Keatings, who signed on at Tynecastle last month, knows he has joined a club that will provide him with a platform to make up for lost time after a mixture of injuries and lack of opportunity prevented him making even a solitary appearance for Celtic’s first team. “I played against a few of the boys at Hearts in the youth ranks and they got their chance, which is all every young boy wants,” Keatings told the Evening News. “They’ve taken it and it’s worked out well for them, but I couldn’t get in the Celtic team.
“I was learning a lot training with the first team at Celtic and that’s something that I’ll always have with me, but you don’t just want to be training, you want to be playing. The situation was different at Hearts; young players have had their chance.
“It’s great being at a big club like Celtic, but when you’re a young boy there, you look on a bit enviously at youngsters at other clubs getting into the first team. When I saw boys like Jamie playing in the Hearts first team, I was thinking ‘that’s where I want to be – I want to be playing’. It plays on your mind and makes you more determined.
“I was getting lots of plaudits and scoring for fun a few years ago, but Celtic carry a 25-man squad and all of them are top-quality players who are worth a lot of money. It was frustrating, but I’m at Hearts now as part of the first team, which is where I want to be.”
After the demoralising end to his time at Celtic, Keatings got himself right back on track with an excellent season at Hamilton. It was the way he bounced back from his earlier setbacks to help fire Accies to promotion last term that convinced Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson to bring the little forward to Tynecastle.
“I feel I’ve got a bit of time to make up for, but I’m happy with the way last season went,” he said. “That was my first proper chance to play in the first team and when it comes along you want to prove to people that you can do it. I played 35 games and got 15 goals for Hamilton, so that’s a pretty good start for my first season in first-team football.”
Keatings travelled to England today with the rest of the Hearts squad ahead of their first friendly of the summer against Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad in Leigh tonight. He will take to the field still buoyant after an exhilarating couple of months. “Winning promotion with Hamilton was a great achievement and a great feeling, but then when I heard I had the chance to come to Hearts, it was an even better feeling,” he said. “Even though I’ve left a Premiership club, it was a no-brainer to come here. I’ve come to one of the biggest clubs in Scotland. There’ll be bigger pressure on me at Hearts, but I view it as a bigger challenge. I’m used to dealing with pressure from my time at Celtic. At every level at Celtic, you have it drummed into you that every team wants to beat you because you’re at such a big club. It will be similar at Hearts because we’ll be one of the biggest clubs in the Championship. There’ll be a lot of pressure on us to live up to that because we’ll be big guns there to be shot at. I’m used to that, though.”
Keatings takes heart from his experience at another of his former clubs as he seeks reason for optimism ahead of a likely Championship promotion battle with a Rangers side stocking up on proven performers from Scottish football’s top end. “Rangers are signing big names but we can definitely compete with them,” he insisted. “Look at last season – Dundee had lots of experienced boys in the team and people expected them to run away with it. At Hamilton, we were a team of young boys and people questioned us throughout the season, but we proved we could compete and we also did it against Hibs in the play-offs.”