James Keatings will return to the scene of the most galling match of his career this Saturday steeled by a desire to ensure he never again feels the way he did at the end of his last visit to Falkirk.
The pain may have been washed away by the Scottish Cup triumph of eight days later and the subsequent summer of love among the Hibs fraternity, but the sense of despair from that dramatic Friday night in mid-May, when promotion hopes were killed stone dead by the Bairns in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, hasn’t been forgotten by those involved.
Keatings looked on course to end up the hero as his double had Hibs leading 2-1 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate in the semi-final of the Scottish Premiership with just quarter of an hour remaining in the second leg. By close of play that night, however, the striker and his colleagues found themselves trooping out of the Falkirk Stadium in a shellshocked state while their rivals partied mercilessly around them after Bob McHugh’s last-kick-of-the-tie goal had sealed a 5-4 aggregate triumph and consigned the Easter Road side to a third year in the Championship.
Recollections of that grim evening, less than three months ago, will play a part in focusing Keatings’ mind for the start of the new league campaign, which begins away to Falkirk this weekend. “That was the lowest point of my career,” he told the Evening News. “It was a horrible feeling. You see the throw-in coming in and then the next minute you’re out of the play-offs with the last kick of the ball. It was a really hard one to take. I sat on the bench after the game for a good few minutes and just looked on to the pitch.
“I didn’t want to go into the changing room. You could hear them celebrating. It was a sickening feeling, absolutely horrible. When we got into the changing room, there wasn’t much we could say. Getting promoted was the main thing we wanted last season and we fell short. That has to drive us on this season though. You don’t want to feel the hurt, but sometimes you need to feel the hurt to drive you on and motivate you not to feel it again.”
Returning to Falkirk so soon after their play-off heartache might have been a more harrowing experience for the Hibs players if they hadn’t lifted the gloom eight days later by somehow conjuring the mental strength to beat Rangers 3-2 in the Scottish Cup final. The sense of euphoria and optimism that has swirled around the club in the last ten-and-a-half weeks means there will be no negative vibes in the Hibs camp when they renew an intense rivalry with the Bairns.
“I don’t think anybody could have expected when we lost at Falkirk that we could pick ourselves up to win the cup a week later,” said Keatings. “Coming off such a low, it was always going to be hard but we knew it was our last chance to repay the fans and get something out the season. We managed to go from the lowest point to the highest point in the space of a week. What happened at Falkirk the last time won’t have any effect this time. It’s a new season and we’ve got an objective to win this league. We want to get back to the Premiership.”
Such aspirations are aided by a fruitful pre-season campaign from Hibs. Neil Lennon’s team have put Motherwell, Birmingham City and Shrewsbury Town to the sword in friendlies, while also running Brondby close over two legs in the Europa League. Keatings, who was part of a Hearts team that ran away with the Championship title two seasons ago, knows how important it is for Hibs to maintain their promising summer form into the league campaign.
“We’ve had a good pre-season so we need to take that form into the first game now,” said the 24-year-old. “It’s a massive one to start off with and we’re all looking forward to it. I wouldn’t say we’re clear favourites to win the title because Falkirk finished above us last season. The likes of Dundee United, St Mirren and Dunfermline will also be in the mix at the top end. It’ll be down to whoever is able to go on runs and win games. As we’ve seen in previous years, if you can get off to a flier, you’re set up for going through the winter part of the season. If you can pick up points early, you can keep building and building and end up ten to 15 points ahead. A fast start really can get you on cruise control to winning it.”
Keatings will be expected to play a prominent role in Hibs’ title bid by assisting as well as scoring goals. Although primarily a fox-in-the-box striker, Lennon believes he can operate just off the front, in a similar fashion to Celtic attacker Kris Commons. Keatings has also been given additional set-piece responsibilities in pre-season. In Sunday’s friendly victory over Shrewsbury, the former Celtic, Hearts and Hamilton Accies forward took every dead ball in the Shrews half. His deliveries were a notable feature of Hibs’ comprehensive win, as he set up Liam Fontaine’s opener with a free-kick, while Darren McGregor and Fontaine both went desperately close to further goals from his set-piece crosses.
“When I was at Hearts, I took corners and free-kicks,” he said. “Last season Alan [Stubbs] had his own set-piece takers and I wasn’t one of them but the new manager’s come in and noticed my set-pieces in training. On Sunday, he told me to take every single one. I managed to supply a few good deliveries and we scored off one and could have scored off a few others. I’ve always had a good delivery in my locker but I’ve not always used it because I’ve preferred to be in the box, getting on the end of things. It’s something the manager can use and hopefully it can benefit the team. Scoring a goal is everything to me, but it still feels great putting a ball on a team-mate’s head and he scores from it.”
Reflecting on possibly being used as a No.10 this season, operating behind strikers Grant Holt and Jason Cummings, Keatings added: “I’m a striker but I played in the hole a few times last season and I enjoy playing it. I was trying to make forward runs beyond Holty and Jason on Sunday, and I did that for my goal. I remember when I was younger, the manager at Celtic liked me in the hole behind the strikers. I can do a job in there and I feel I’ll improve the more I learn about playing it. If the manager feels I can add to the team playing in that position, then that’s good for everyone.”
Wherever he is deployed, Keatings will be as strong-willed as ever as he bids to establish himself as a key man at Hibs following a stop-start first campaign with the club. “This is my biggest season so far,” he said. “It’s massive. I’m down to the last year of my contract, so I’m fighting for my career, whether it’s here or somewhere else. I love it at Hibs and I don’t want to move on.”