Hampden all that matters to James Keatings – not Tynecastle

James Keatings is determined to take Hibs to the final
James Keatings is determined to take Hibs to the final
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It reads like the sort of contrived question you would be asked in any pub quiz. What links Tynecastle, Hibs, St Johnstone and the League Cup semi-final between those two clubs?

To save you racking your brains for the answer, it is James Keatings, the one-time Hearts striker, who now pulls on the green and white of their Capital rivals and who once played for the Saints.

As such, it all adds up to a special day for the 24-year-old who, having been surprisingly released by Hearts at the end of last season only to be immediately snapped up by Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs, admitted he never quite envisaged returning to the Gorgie ground under such circumstances.

And, with Hibs first out of the hat and so being allocated the home dressing-room, Keatings can even seek out his old peg on which to hang his “civvies” as he prepares for the match.

But, while the surroundings may be familiar, Keatings and his team-mates will be treating the occasion as just another game, adamant they will prepare for a clash with yet another Premiership side as they do for any other.

Having disposed of both Aberdeen – who were then flying high at the top of the Premiership – and Dundee United en route to the penultimate stage of the competition, Keatings insisted that, while a tough match is anticipated, Hibs go into it with nothing to fear.

He said: “I wasn’t fussed where we were to play the game. I didn’t expect it but it’s just another stadium and another game for us, though, it’s obviously a massive one.

“I’m looking forward to playing the game and hopefully reaching the final. It’s a good pitch, or at least it was the last time I was on it.

“Someone said we’d been allocated the home dressing-room so it won’t take long for me to settle in. I can go and sit under my own peg. The away dressing-room is tiny so it’s good we’re in the home one with more space.”

Hibs have also been given more space in the Tynecastle stands, the Easter Road club selling out an initial allocation of 11,500 tickets as were the extra 600 they later received, a decision which angered the McDiarmid Park outfit, who will have only 3375 supporters at the game.

“It will be strange to see three sides of the stadium full of Hibs fans,” admitted Keatings. “But it’s good we’ll have that backing and hopefully they can have a big influence.

“Obviously there’s been a dispute in the last few days about tickets, but that’s outwith Hibs’ hands. They’ve just sold the tickets they’ve been given.

“But the atmosphere will be great. Tynecastle has been known for it for years now – it lives up to the hype.”

St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright has suggested his team won’t be favourites to win given their poor form recently and Hibs’ impressive run of just one defeat – and that at Ibrox – in their last 21 matches.

Keatings, however, suggested Wright is simply playing mind games.

“They’re in the league above us and sitting in a good position. They might not be in the best of form but they’re in the league above us for a reason and I’m sure they’ll be favourites.

“But we’ve played two Premiership teams already and we’ve shown how good we are. We’re confident we can compete.

“It’s different playing Premiership teams. Championship sides want to sit and make it hard, Premiership teams want to play which is good for us as we’ll have space instead of facing ten men behind the ball.

“Hibs made it to the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup last season. They had a good team then and they’ve added to it with the likes of John McGinn.”

The Edinburgh club’s latest arrival, Anthony Stokes, was as familiar a figure to Keatings as he was to the fans who watched him mark his return to Easter Road in typical style by claiming the third goal in the weekend win over St Mirren, the pair having been at Celtic together as was Saints frontman Michael O’Halloran.

Although Dominique Malonga has departed for Italy, the presence of Stokes and another new striker Chris Dagnall means competition for places up front is as intense as ever but Keatings is not worried about having to fight for his place.

He said: “Last season, I had competition for places at Hearts so I think I’ve got used to it. It’s just one of those things and every manager wants to strengthen their team.

“Bringing in Stokes, you know he has some qualities that others don’t and it can only increase the competition for places. I want to challenge myself and it’s going to be a massive challenge to get into the team here.

“You only have to watch Stokesy in training to see his quality, the way he holds the ball up and brings others into the game. I was with him at Celtic when I was coming through as a young boy. Even then, I looked up to him as a player in my position. It’s a massive statement from the club to bring in a player of his quality.”

Keatings, who set up the Republic of Ireland hitman for this goal, says even the mere presence of Stokes will reap great benefits for Hibs and, in particular, top scorer Jason Cummings.

He said: “I’ve noticed in games that a few defenders have crowded round Jason instead of other players. With Stokes coming in, he’s going to get a lot of attention and I’m sure he’ll be the subject of a lot of team-talks. Hopefully, that frees up space for others.

“I wasn’t surprised he came here. I think he’s settled in Glasgow. He wants to stay up here and he believes in himself that he can come here, do a really good job and then force his way back into the Celtic team.”

Keatings, who spent six months with St Johnstone on loan from Celtic when Wright was assistant to Steve Lomas, also knows full well the dangers O’Halloran poses to Hibs although the Saints star has been the subject of repeated bids from Rangers in recent days.

He said: “I know Michael from coming through the ranks at Celtic together. He was the year above me and he’s a quality player. He’s showing it this year. We’ve seen the rumours all week about him, about whether it’s going to happen or not.

“But it’s not something we’ve looked at. We’re just focusing on ourselves and trying to take that into the game.

“It will be a tough game. They’ve been in this position before, they know what it takes to win the Scottish Cup and so they’ll be used to it.

“But we’ve got a really strong team spirit and hopefully we can stick together and take that out onto the pitch.”