Any new striker arriving at Hearts faces the daunting task of trying to dislodge James Keatings from the team.
The 22-year-old has overcome two injury setbacks already this season to become the current top goalscorer at Tynecastle. Character and resilience are two of his best qualities and he won’t be ousted easily.
Evidence of Keatings’ self belief is detailed on his CV, which Hearts studied meticulously before signing him from Hamilton in June. That mental strength was also apparent in West Lothian on Saturday. After missing a sitter from close range and seeing the Livingston goalkeeper Darren Jamieson save his penalty, Keatings ensured he was in the right place to score a decisive winning goal and fire Hearts 15 points clear at the top of the league. Forwards of lesser substance would shy away after wasting two such opportunities, but Keatings returned to convert the third. It was his fourth goal in Hearts’ last four games and his eighth in 17 appearances this season.
Head coach Robbie Neilson, who hopes to sign a new striker in January, wasn’t surprised by Keatings’ persistence. It’s part of his make-up and one of the reasons he was brought to Tynecastle in the first place.
Leaving Celtic 18 months ago was a massive decision but one which proved his determination to forge a career in professional football. That kind of single-mindedness made him an ideal target for Neilson and director of football Craig Levein when they began their rebuilding programme at Hearts.
“He’s got a strong character. We knew that right from the start,” Neilson explained. “James was at Celtic as a young boy and wasn’t going to get a chance there, so he left and went to Hamilton on loan. He then went abroad to Australia because he wanted to play football. That says a lot about his character. He’s strong enough to say, ‘I’m not going to make it here, I’m going to go somewhere else’.
“We looked at that before we brought him in. We knew he was strong. You get the kids who are quite happy to sit at the Old Firm until the age of 22 or 23 and see what happens. The good ones are the ones who realise it’s not happening and go somewhere else to play. James did that and he’s now fighting his way back up again. He’s doing it every day in training here and he’s getting his rewards. He will get himself back to the top again.”
The plan is for him to do so with Hearts, who are pressing ahead with their drive to return to the Scottish Premiership after last season’s relegation. Now free of hamstring and groin problems, Keatings has surpassed Osman Sow as the club’s top goalscorer while the Swede is sidelined by a thigh injury. According to Neilson, Saturday’s winner at Livingston typified Keatings despite that earlier profligacy.
“I wasn’t surprised to see him in there scoring,” continued the head coach. “He does a lot of his work in the penalty area and I always know that, when someone gets to the byeline looking to put the ball into the box, Keats will be there giving them an option to find him.
“He did that on Tuesday night [against Cowdenbeath] when he got the cutback from Adam Eckersely and scored. He assessed it, stepped out, took the cutback and scored. On Saturday, he got himself into position and got a tap-in just a few yards out. He’s got a real instinct for being in that area.”
More than the natural goalscorer’s inclination, Keatings is now benefiting from a sustained run in the side without interruptions because of injury. His contribution to the title push has acted like a huge tonic to the team in recent weeks after the stop-start beginning to his Hearts career. “His fitness was a big thing for us,” admitted Neilson. “He came back for pre-season and was trying to get himself fit. He managed to get there and then he got injured again. He’s come back from that and had to get himself fit again all over. It was very hard for him to get to the level he wants to be at but he’s there now. He’s still got a long way to go to get to where we want him to be with his fitness and his pace. He’s working every day. Stevie Crawford [assistant coach] does a lot of work with him as well and I’m pleased with how it’s going.”
Nonetheless, Neilson is not satisfied to the point where he is ready to abandon plans to sign another forward. Sow, Soufian El Hassnaoui and Dale Carrick are all injured and Keatings has taken full advantage. Teenager Gary Oliver is back from a loan spell at Stenhousemuir to provide back-up, but Hearts fully intend to recruit a new striker next month. “Yeah, I’d be pleased to see another striker in anyway,” said Neilson when asked if Sow and Keatings might be an ideal combination up front. “Gary has come on in the last couple of games and he’s just back from his loan at Stenhousemuir. He’s done well. It depends what game we’re playing. Sometimes we will play with one up top and one behind. Sometimes we’ll play two up top. I’d like to get all the strikers back so we’ve got options for different players and formations I can put out. At the moment, we’re a wee bit stuck, we’ve only got James and Gary fit.”