James Keatings is entitled to feel slightly aggrieved.
Having led the Hearts attack by himself and scored four goals in four games during December, he gets dropped. Such is life at a big football club where competition is fierce. Keatings has a fight on his hands but is ready to scrap to reclaim his place.
He rippled netting against Queen of the South, Alloa, Cowdenbeath and Livingston last month whilst almost every other Hearts forward nursed an injury. His exploits helped maintain the club’s sizeable lead at the top of the Scottish Championship. He didn’t score against Hibs or Dumbarton in the first two matches of 2015 and found himself relegated to the substitutes’ bench at Ibrox last Friday.
Mental toughness is required to see Keatings through and the player is not short on that commodity. With Osman Sow fit again, Genero Zeefuik arriving on loan, plus Dale Carrick and Soufian El Hassnaoui close to returning from injury, he faces a stern challenge for a starting slot up front. He scored twice in Hearts Under-20s’ 3-2 win over Hibs on Tuesday night so confidence is high. However, he may again be restricted to a sub’s role against Falkirk this afternoon.
“I got time with the under-20s and I did what I do. I score goals. I was happy with that,” he said. “We’ve got more strikers – the new boy came in and stuff like that – so it’s competition. It’s a good thing to have in a club. Who plays is up to the manager. He picks the team that’s fit enough to win the game on a Saturday. I’m sure he’s got in his mind the right two for each game and we’ll see where it goes.”
Ideally, Keatings’ wish is to form one half of a two-man attack. Combining with Zeefuik, which he did in the 5-1 win at Dumbarton two weeks ago, is something which would appeal long-term: “Yes, that makes my job easier when I’m playing,” he explained. “I played up front with somebody last year and at the start of this season as well. I’ve shown I can play by myself, but with the big man [Zeefuik] coming in I can now play off somebody and hopefully get more goals. Instead of myself occupying two defenders, he occupies two. That gives me a free role at certain times in the game, and even if I am in a situation where it frees him up as well. It’s good.
“Playing up front yourself, you’re occupying the back four and going across the four of them, so it’s harder to shut them down and stuff. Whereas if it’s two, one drops off, the other one can go. It helps you out a lot.
“He [Zeefuik] is totally different from me. He’s a big boy, he’ll hold the ball up, and he brings a lot of physicality to the game. It’s good for the team. He links the play up really well.
“With the injuries, before we were able to sign anybody I had to play up front myself because there was no-one else to play with. I did the job the manager asked me to do, now we’ve got somebody else in to help and that’s going to help the team.
“It makes it easier for me with somebody there winning flick-ons for me to run on to and stuff like that.”
Keatings knows he may need to be patient during the second half of the season as Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson tries to accommodate an array of strikers. “I left Hamilton last season where there was competition. I played a bit more wide in that team. Competition is always good. It keeps you on your toes in training, it pushes you a wee bit further and makes you more determined to get yourself in the team. That’s where it’s down to me.”
Last week’s postponement at Ibrox has left the Hearts squad eager for action against Falkirk.
“We’re refocused. We’re focused on Falkirk. The manager said that in the dressing room straight after the game got called off. The manager is totally focused and he’s making sure every player is totally focused.”