Petrofac Training Cup ties might be considered trivial by Hearts fans focused solely on promotion back to the Scottish Premiership this season. For striker James Keatings, the competition provides the chance of a lifetime tonight.
Keatings is expected to start his first competitive match since joining Hearts in May when they face Livingston this evening. He is desperate to showcase his goalscoring power to light up the Energy Assets Arena and leave a lasting impression on head coach Robbie Neilson. Swedish forward Osman Sow led the attack in Hearts’ three competitive outings to date against Annan Athletic, Rangers and Hibs. However, he is suspended both tonight and for Saturday’s league trip to Raith Rovers following a red card for violent conduct in Sunday’s Edinburgh derby.
Keatings, therefore, has a priceless opportunity to make his mark in a cup tournament often dismissed as irrelevant because it only involves clubs outwith the top league.
The 22-year-old cut a frustrated figure on the substitutes’ bench in all three of the above fixtures. In fact, he only managed a competitive debut for the club he joined back in May from Hamilton when he came on as a substitute against Hibs with five minutes remaining. A hamstring injury hindered him during pre-season, but he has been fit and ready for several weeks now. Tonight, he hopes to finally get the exposure he has waited more than three months for.
“These games come around where people who are on the fringes of the first team can get a chance,” said Keatings, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “It’s their time to show what they can do and put thoughts into the manager’s head. You need to make him make a decision on you.
“Obviously Osman’s been sent off and there are chances now for a striker to step in. Hopefully I get the opportunity. I know I can do it. If I get the chances, I’ll score goals.”
Keatings scored 15 in 35 games for Hamilton last year. “All through last season I proved that, if I get chances, I’ll score no matter what. That’s not going to change.
“If I get chances, I will definitely score.
“If I play against Livingston then I hope to do well and put thoughts into the manager’s head for the Raith game.”
The frustration felt by Keatings is also evident within Gary Oliver, another forward hoping to start tonight’s match. Those two could be paired together in a combination to see who earns the right to fill Sow’s shirt at Stark’s Park this weekend.
Although he has hitherto shown patience in waiting for an opportunity, Keatings explained it doesn’t come naturally. “It’s very frustrating, to be honest. You have your up days and your down days. It’s all part of the game, all part of football really. When you get these moments, it’s about getting round them, working hard, doing it on the training ground and forcing your way into the team.
“That’s the way football is. There’s a lot of competition for places at the moment. I’ve had a wee niggle with my hamstring so I was trying to get over that as well. It’s been about being patient and, when the chance comes, taking it.
“At the start of my time at Hamilton, I was on the bench through pre-season. Then, as soon as the league started, I was in the team from the start. I’ve not been in this situation during a season so it’s a new experience for me.
“I played most of the games at Hamilton last season before I came here. I signed here hoping I was going to kick on and I’ve had that wee niggle in pre-season which has held me back a bit. I’m getting over that and trying to get myself in the team. I’m determined to do it.
“Mentally, I’m fine. I’m tuned in. I’m focused. I’m ready in my mind to do a job so hopefully I get a chance to do it.”
Hearts’ sterling start to life in the SPFL Championship hasn’t done him many favours. Neilson would rightly be criticised for altering his team unnecessarily following wins over Rangers at Ibrox and Hibs at Tynecastle in the first two league games. The down side to that scenario is those on the bench begin to feel increasingly anxious.
“Those were two massive games against two of the biggest title contenders this season. We’ve beaten both of them so you can’t really change a winning team. The lads have been brilliant,” acknowledged Keatings.
“The manager wants us all to be a unit and that’s what we’ve been. We were all together as a team when we went to Ibrox and it was the same at Tynecastle on Sunday, before the game and after it.
“There are a lot of strikers here so when the chance comes I need to be on my toes to make sure I take it.”
For those who didn’t see many Hamilton matches last year, Keatings is a typical poacher-type who comes alive inside the penalty box. He would be considered an orthodox No.9 rather than a No.10 or second striker.
“I’m a striker. That’s what I came here as and that’s where I played last season,” he said. “Hamilton changed to three up front last year and I played wide left of that three but I’m still a striker. It’s always good that the manager can play you in other positions and it gives options that I can play in other roles.
“I’m happy to do a job anywhere but my main position is striker. I’m lively in the box, looking to get round about any drop balls. I prefer to play up front with someone and play off him. I like to get myself in the box to play round about a partner.”
He also knows Livingston well enough having shared a league with them last season before Hamilton’s promotion to the Premiership. “Livingston are a tough team and we had hard games against them with Hamilton last year. They’ve strengthened during the summer so they will be even tougher now. It’s a good stadium so hopefully there is a good crowd there as well.”