If Hearts wish to keep the wheels of their Championship juggernaut rolling this afternoon, they may have to put up with tyre marks on the Central Park surface and even discarded car engines at the side of the pitch.
The message from Jambos striker James Keatings is clear: it’s not going to be pretty in Cowdenbeath. The former Hamilton Accies man is just 22-years-old, but amongst a youthful Jambos squad, he is one of the most experienced in terms of visiting the Fife club’s unglamorous venue, which is also used for stock car racing.
Keatings played there twice while at Accies and revealed that he has told his fellow Hearts team-mates to prepare for “war” this afternoon as the league leaders aim to make it 16 games unbeaten in the SPFL’s second tier.
“It’s different,” he said, when asked what it’s like to play there. “When you arrive at the stadium, it’s used for other things and you see cars lying at the side of the pitch – the first time I went up I saw an engine lying there, it was funny and an eye-opener.
“I’ve spoken to a few of the lads about this game and told them what it’s like going there. It’s going to be a war when you get on that pitch. It’s going to be backs against the wall at points, high balls and tackles. It’s a tight pitch so there is going to be a lot of 50-50s and not a lot of good football. It’s another opportunity for us to show what we can do and we’ll be up for it.”
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has the Jambos playing the right way and it’s certainly been working so far. However, the winter months will be their biggest test, with visits to the harsher venues of Dumbarton and Alloa ahead in January, as well as a trip to Ibrox sandwiched in between. Come through January unscathed and the Jambos will be well placed to continue their assault towards automatic promotion.
Keatings admits the weather conditions that are forecast for today and a visit to an unfamiliar venue means their style might have to adapt.
“There is different ways we play to other teams and obviously this match is going to be different from others,” he said. “At Tynecastle we can play the way we want to play, but obviously going there is totally different. The pitch is dead tight and it’s not the nicest surface to pass the ball on, but we will try our best to do that and hopefully we can come out with the win.
“It’s not going to be a game where it’s going to be pass and move – it’s going to be a lot of ball in the air. It’s another test of character for us and it’s a big test to go and show everybody else we can go here and do a job.”
With Hearts’ top goalscorer Osman Sow out for at least five weeks with a torn thigh muscle and having not played since October in the derby at Easter Road, Keatings has been presented with an opportunity by Neilson to cement his place in the first team.
The young Scot has not had injury problems of his own to seek this season. After a promising start to his Hearts career, the former Celtic youngster was hindered when he missed the whole of October with a groin injury, before returning at the beginning of November at home to Raith Rovers.
Last weekend’s spectacular volley in the 4-1 win at home to Queen of the South took his goal tally in the Championship to five and now he is back to full fitness, he is eager to add more goals to his name.
“I’ve had my injuries at the start of the season, my niggles and stuff, but I’m feeling back to where I was in pre-season when I got fit,” he said. “Getting a run in the team is good for me obviously – every game that comes I’m learning more and hopefully I get more goals, that’s what my aim is.”
When Keatings arrived on a free transfer from Premiership Accies in the summer, he knew he was coming to a big club, but he didn’t quite realise how big. Hearts fans have got right behind their side this season home and away and Keatings admits their backing is spurring him on to perform better.
“Everybody says it’s a big club, but when I came here it was an eye opener to see how big the club really was,” he added. “The fans have shown that. We are playing in the Championship every week and getting over 15-16,000 following us and at away games, the away ends are sold out. It’s a massive following and it’s brilliant for the club.
“It’s my first experience of playing in front of big crowds and as a young boy growing up, going to watch football, you want to be there playing in front of them and scoring goals, so it’s an extra motivation for me playing in front of a massive crowd.”