James Keatings may well be the most natural goalscorer currently on Hearts’ books. Confirming that theory has so far been impossible, though.
The striker has been plagued by persistent fitness problems since arriving in Edinburgh and is only now free of the restrictive injuries that have hindered his progress. After five weeks out with a groin injury, Keatings is ready to return against Raith Rovers at Tynecastle tomorrow. The visitors can testify to his predatory instincts following his hat-trick in a 4-0 win at Stark’s Park in August. Indications at that point were that he would grow in strength and stature and continue rippling nets with Hearts. It hasn’t happened, through no fault of the 22-year-old’s.
In glimpses, Keatings has looked electric inside the penalty box. The problem has been building momentum. Niggling injuries, like the hamstring complaint which affected him during pre-season and the groin problem that saw him miss October in its entirety, have been, as the player puts it, a “nightmare”. He is now ready to properly begin his Hearts career fully five months after moving east from Hamilton Academical.
“The injury is totally cleared up. I’ve had a few training sessions under my belt so, obviously, match sharpness won’t be there. I’d be happy just to be involved at some point tomorrow,” said Keatings, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “The break last weekend was helpful for me to get an extra week to get back in. It’s helped me work on my fitness.
“Last time against Raith was my first start in the league and I managed to score a hat-trick. I want to make an impact again if the manager decides to use me. It’s down to him at the end of the day. He’ll know where I’m at so we’ll see what happens.”
The last five weeks in particular have been depressing for a player who derives much of his energy from scoring goals.
“It’s been a total nightmare,” continued Keatings. “I had a niggle in pre-season, then I got going and then this injury came in an under-20 match and it’s kind of killed me. Being out has only made me more determined. I’ve been totally focused on getting fit again.
“The last five weeks have been frustrating but it’s been good in some other ways. Sitting there watching the team play has made me more determined to get back in and do much better than what I was doing.”
Hearts fans will have noted the potential in Keatings but the player himself is adamant he has much more to offer. “I’ve only started six games and I’ve been subbed in most of them. I haven’t had 90 minutes to show what I can do too often. There’s still plenty time left in the season and hopefully I can get a lot more time on the pitch to show the fans I can score a lot of goals and do more for the team.
“Watching the team score goals is hard. That’s what I want to be doing. Osman Sow has been doing it well. You look at strikers all round the world and you watch Champions League games. You do that to learn.
“You can’t describe to anybody the feeling of scoring goals. When I go out on the training field that’s all I want to do. Straight away, I’ll go right out and get a ball and hit the back of the net before training starts. It’s something I live for, just to hit the back of that net.
“That buzz is what most strikers feed off and that’s definitely what I feed off. As soon as I hit the back of the net, it’s the best feeling. That’s what I want to feel more of.
“Creating a goal is the same if you set up a team-mate. You get the same kind of feeling. However, as a striker, scoring is what gives you the most confidence and makes you feel on top of the world.”
Keatings counts four Hearts goals to his name, the other coming in the 5-0 win over Livingston on September 28. That was his last appearance in maroon.
“I missed the penalty against Falkirk a few weeks before that and I had a few chances that day,” he recalled. “I could probably have scored another hat-trick against them and I was thinking I wasn’t going to score at Tynecastle. It was playing on my mind.
“I came off the bench against Livingston and scored my goal. It felt wonderful just to score in front of a big crowd. That was my first real experience of scoring in front of a big crowd and it was a great feeling.
“I want to push myself as far as I can now. I scored 15 goals last season for Hamilton but I want to beat that total. I know I’ve got a lot more than what I’ve shown so far.”
He would be entitled to feel confident of finding the net against Raith given his exploits against them last time out. “I never look at it that way, really,” he said. “The hat-trick is always going to be in my mind because I scored it against Raith.
“I will prepare the right way, get my warm-up done and look for an opportunity whenever I get my chance on the pitch. Hopefully it will come.”
The stop-start nature of his Hearts career might have generated feelings of regret within other players in Keatings’ position. After all, he left Hamilton and rejected the chance to play top-flight football to join Hearts. He still has no doubt it was the right choice.
“Hamilton did brilliantly to get promoted last year,” he explained. “I just thought Hearts is a bigger club with bigger expectations, more fans and a bigger stadium. As a player, you want to be playing in front of 17,000 every week. That’s what made me want to come here. I want to play in front of big crowds and show what I can do.
“Hamilton getting into the Premiership was a big factor in people saying I was taking another step down. In my eyes, I wasn’t taking a step down. I was going to a bigger club.
“Yes, it’s in the Championship, but this is a big league this season with Hibs and Rangers there as well. I’m delighted with the move I made and the choice I made.”
Now injury-free, Keatings intends to start proving his goalscoring worth. It promises to be an intriguing spectacle.