The pen was in James Keatings’ hand, the striker ready to put his signature to a two-year deal which would see him cross the “great divide,” moving from Hearts to their Capital rivals Hibs when his mobile phone rang.
On the other end was a Premiership club, unaware of his whereabouts but hoping to persuade him to join them. It was, he revealed, just the latest in a string of overtures made to the former Celtic and Hamilton player once it had become clear he’d be leaving Tynecastle.
In fact, a deal with one top-flight outfit was all but done before Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs made his move and that, Keatings insisted, was that, he was Easter Road-bound.
Speaking to the Evening News at the Capital club’s Spanish training base in La Manga, he said: “I had a lot of teams in for me, a good few in the Premiership, while most Championship clubs had spoken to my agent and I’d actually gone and met a club and the basically a deal was almost done before I had left Hearts.
“But when Hibs came in for me it was where I wanted to go, I decided that straight away. Then, I was sitting signing my contract when my phone went and it was another Premiership team calling.”
Even today Keatings admits he’s baffled as to how he suddenly found himself on the periphery of Robbie Neilson’s plans, claiming the Hearts coach had told him his 11 goals had “carried the team” at an important stage of their Championship winning season.
It was a decision which also surprised many Gorgie fans as the supportive messages Keatings received following his departure eased any worries he may have had over his decision to join their biggest rivals.
Keatings did, of course, have the opportunity to see out the remainder of his two year deal with Hearts, the only proviso being the warning from Neilson that he’d be unlikely to get as much game time as he’d like, his time on the pitch having already become severely limited following the return to fitness of Osman Sow.
He said: “It was really hard. I had a meeting with Robbie before the end of the season. I was not playing much, 15 minutes here and there and it just wasn’t for me.
“I was doing my thing in training and I wasn’t getting the rewards I thought I deserved. I thought I was pushed to the side. Over Christmas was when I played and scored a few vital goals and stuff like that, but obviously when Osman was fit and back in the side I found myself sitting on the bench.
“I thought did really well in the team before everyone got back fit. His words were I carried the team for part of the season, but that’s football, the manager had his strongest side and I wasn’t in it.
“I think the fans were surprised that they had let me go, but obviously they have not grudges to hold against me. I was warned on the day I was signing at Hibs what had happened to others in the past so it was surprising the comments that came from the Hearts fans.
“I really appreciated what some of them had to say. I thought the majority of them would turn on me, but I’ve appreciated what’s been said and I have to thank them. I didn’t expect it.”
Having rejected a deal with Hamilton as they made the step up to the Premiership at Hibs’ expense a year ago to remain in the Championship with Hearts, Keatings is well aware there will be those who question his ambition in having turned down the chance to make the step up this time given the opportunities he says were there for him.
But he has no doubts he has made the right decision, adamant his overall game will improve both under the tutelage of Stubbs and his backroom staff and working with Hibs head of sports science and fitness, Craig Flannigan.
He said: “That’s me in to my second week, so I’ve settled in well. The lads have been brilliant with me, the same with the backroom staff have really welcomed me and made me feel good.
“I felt the opportunity here at Hibs and working with the likes of Flanny the fitness coach and the manager and backroom staff here and the quality in this side can help improve my game and take me further on.
“Every footballer wants to play at the highest level and in Scotland that’s the Premiership. It’s hard to come back down, but at the end of the day if I can see myself improving more as a player at a Championship club then I think one day I will be playing at a much higher level. That’s my aim I am coming here to hopefully change a few things in my game and my fitness.
“You are always learning as a player. You see some in English Premiership were playing non-league football at ages older than me. I’m 23 now and I think time is on my side. I can always improve.”
So what it is Hibs can do for him that he feels others can’t? “I think working under Flanny will get me in really good shape, stronger and faster and that’s my aim,” he said.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about boys who’ve worked with him, they speak very, very highly of him. And I believe working under the manager and with these players I will score a lot of goals.”
And although Hearts ran away with the title last season to earn themselves an immediate return to the Premiership, Keatings insisted there was nothing between the Capital sides, revealing his former team-mates on the other side of the city felt they’d “got out of jail” in a couple of the derbies.
He said: “Playing against them last season you saw how well the team worked, they played football the right way that was a massive factor, the number of chances they got in games and how they dominated games. It was clear to see everyone saw it in the derbies, Hibs were the top team the way they played their football and Hearts got a bit lucky with top class goals at vital moments and rode their luck.
“Hearts won by a lot of points but in the derbies there wasn’t a lot between the teams. The start of the season was the key, Hearts started brilliantly on the front foot, winning games week in week out, Hibs kind of struggled a wee bit, a gelling period for them with new players while Hearts hit the ground running.”
Keatings accepts that having played his part in Hibs’ downfall, he might have a bit of making up to do with his new supporters, but he is convinced he can.
He said: “Obviously at that time in the play-offs I never thought I’d be here, but I’ve come to do same job as I have at my last two clubs, to give it my all and hopefully score goals.
“At Celtic I played 18 games at under-19 level and scored 26 goals. At Hamilton I played 33 and scored 15. At Hearts it was around 30 mark, 18 of them starts, and I scored 11 so hopefully I can hit double figures this season and push on.
“It’s going to be a tough goal to get myself in this team, but I am up for it. With Jason Cummings, Dominique Malonga, Farid El Alagui and myself, we have four strikers who know where the goal is. We are all capable of double figures which can only be good for the team this coming season.”