At this time last year, James Keatings had just conducted his annual end-of-season appraisal with his father. The striker was heartened by his goal tally but disappointed at the fact he had fallen out of favour at Hearts. He felt he needed a change of scenery to prosper.
A year down the line, the 24-year-old feels his decision to leave Tynecastle and move across the city to Hibs has been vindicated. Keatings acknowledges it hasn’t all been plain sailing at Easter Road and concedes that when he initially went to his father’s house to assess this campaign last week, just before the Scottish Cup final, he was downbeat about a season in which he has struggled to command regular game time in his preferred position as a striker. However, when he looked more closely at how things had panned out, he emerged from his heart-to-heart with James Keatings Senior with a far sunnier outlook. His optimism for next season has been heightened further since he came off the bench to help Hibs overturn a 2-1 deficit against Rangers in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final. The jubilant scenes he has witnessed – and been part of – over the past four days have ensured he has begun his summer break in far more buoyant mood than he did a year ago.
“I sat down with my father last week and we went through my season together, and when we analysed it, I’ve actually done quite well,” he said. “I’ve played in a new role and I’ve taken my opportunities whenever I’ve played up front.
“Me and my father are tight about football. My stepmum’s sick of me coming into the house because it’s all we ever talk about. We have a chat at the end of every season. When I went to his house last week, I was on a bit of a downer with regard to my season because I hadn’t played as much as I wanted, but when you roll it back, I’ve had experience of a new position in attacking midfield, played in two cup finals and scored more goals than last season. On paper, it’s been a successful season that I can go and build on next year.”
Keatings scored 11 goals in 18 starts for Hearts last season, but didn’t score from March onwards. By his own admission, he finished on a downer. This term he scored 12 in 18 starts for Hibs, but finished the season with four goals in his last three starts. Although disappointed not to start Saturday’s final, he was heartened to have been on the pitch at the time his team turned things round. He will be champing at the bit when he returns for pre-season next month. Anthony Stokes’ likely return to parent club Celtic provides an opening for Keatings to establish himself as a regular starter.
“I had a great season last season but towards the end I wasn’t playing much which is why I came here,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve played as much as I’d have wanted but I’ve been involved in two cup finals and a chase for promotion. I’ve played in a different position at times this season but most of the time when I’ve started up front I’ve scored goals. I’ve managed to beat my tally from last season, so I’m happy from that point of view.
“I want to become the main striker at Hibs next season. That was the main aim at the start of this season as well. I set my target to beat 11 goals, which is what I hit last season, and I’ve managed to do that even though I’ve not played as many minutes and I’ve played a midfield role in a lot of games. I see myself as a striker and hopefully next season I can go and grab my chance and stamp my authority on this team. The club will be looking to strengthen but I’m going to go away in the close season and work hard to make sure I come back in the best shape I’ve been in and give myself the best chance possible to do well next season.”
Keatings is still coming to terms with the fact he was part of a Hibs team that finally ended a 114-year wait for Scottish Cup glory. After four days of euphoria, he said: “You just keep thinking to yourself ‘when am I going to wake up?’ As a young boy I’ve watched my team [Celtic] lift it before but you never think it will come round for yourself.
“As a footballer, you want to please the fans. That’s what satisfies you the most, seeing them happy. As a fan myself growing up, there’s nothing better than seeing your team win something, so I know exactly what the Hibs fans have been feeling and going through over the past few days. Sunshine On Leith at the end of the match was incredible. I’ve heard it a few times since I’ve been here but watching 20,000 fans singing it at Hampden was brilliant.
“We spoke last week about what it would mean to the club if we could do it. The manager told us that so many Hibs legends hadn’t been able to do it, so we had a chance to make history. We managed to do it and it’s a massive honour and a great thing to be a part of. It’s been amazing.”
Keatings almost got to experience scoring a cup final goal. With Hibs trailing 2-1 on Saturday, the substitute almost turned in a low angled drive from Stokes at the far post. “I was in two minds about whether to go and head it or slide in with my knee,” he said. “It just flashed by me. Another couple of inches and I would have put it in the net but I’m just delighted we won it in the end.”
After scoring a double at Falkirk in the ill-fated play-off match 12 days ago, Keatings was the toast of the Hibs fans, who sang “Keatsy’s on fire” to the tune of Freed from Desire. Since Saturday, however, the words have been adapted to include the name of two-goal cup final hero Stokes. “It’s been Stokesy’s since Saturday,” added Keatings. “He deserves it though.”