Lurk around Riccarton’s training pitches each day and you will see a recurring sight.
James Keatings is there habitually, working to enhance his game long after sessions finish. He already feels a vastly-improved player from the one which joined Hearts from Hamilton Academical last summer. The hard work is paying off, but the ultimate reward will be a league winner’s medal.
What Keatings lacks in size and stature he makes up for in appetite and desire. The striker stands around 5ft 8in tall but uses his diminutive frame well. He is hungry for goals and the success they often bring. More than that, he harbours a work ethic and a will to become the best he can be. He has ten goals from 24 Hearts appearances to date but remains ambitious to score more and learn more.
Overseeing his progress on the training field is Stevie Crawford, Hearts’ assistant coach. An international striker in his playing days, his work now is to prime forwards to fire Hearts back into the Scottish Premiership. He isn’t faring too badly. Hearts are 20 points clear at the top of the Championship with Keatings and Osman Sow into double figures in the goalscoring charts. Jamie Walker sits on nine, while Genero Zeefuik has eight from his first seven appearances in maroon. Billy King and Sam Nicholson have contributed ten between them.
Keatings explained to the Evening News how joining Hearts has made him a better player. He would already be in the Premiership had he remained at Hamilton, however he felt Riccarton and Hearts’ new progressive philosophy would serve his development better.
“My decision was massive and I’ve never looked back on it,” said the 23-year-old. “I think I’ve improved on all fronts – my game, my strength, my finishing and my movement. It’s credit to the coaches at Hearts. I knew coming here, when I first came in for a tour of the place, about the plans the manager had for the team. It was massive for me and there was only one way I was going.
“If you look at pictures from the start of the season when I first walked on to a pitch compared with now, you’d see I’ve filled out a bit physically. I work with Stevie Crawford most days after training. He’ll take me aside and talk me through things, and he notices things in my game. He’ll tell me what I’m doing well and what I’m doing badly. He points things out and works with me to be even better at the good things and to improve on the bad.
“If you’re willing to put the hours in after training, that’s where you’ll get that wee bit extra. That’s what I want. I want to add all those wee bits on to make myself as complete a player as I can be.”
Crawford’s influence on all of Hearts’ strikers cannot be understated. Keatings credits him with much of his own progress, although a glance at the league table shows his impact on the squad’s collective finishing: Hearts have scored a total of 74 times in 26 league matches to date this season.
“Stevie’s been really close with me since I came in at the start of the season. He’s been brilliant with all the lads, to be fair,” continued Keatings. “He takes the strikers aside and he’s really good to work with. He can be harsh on you and he can be quite polite but that’s what you want. He’s a totally honest man and you need that – an honest person telling you what’s gone wrong and what’s gone right.
“The goals we’re scoring are down to Stevie and the manager and the style of play we’re using. They set things up in training, from crossing and finishing to through balls from midfield. It’s all geared for strikers to have the movement they want and that’s where a lot of goals are coming from.
“The number of goals I’ve got should be a lot more given the chances I’ve had. I was disappointed with the two penalty misses I’ve had this season [in league matches against Falkirk and Livingston]. The manager will look at it and see a few players getting into double figures now. A few guys are chipping in with goals from midfield and Genero’s come in and hit the ground running. He’s absolutely flying with goals just now. The coaches are going to be absolutely delighted seeing the ball hit the back of the net so often.”
It would therefore be a fair achievement to finish the campaign as top goalscorer in such a free-scoring Hearts side. Keatings is firmly in contention. Furthermore, only Hibs’ Jason Cummings and Derek Lyle of Queen of the South are ahead of him in the overall league scorers’ chart. “It would be an extra success for me to finish the season as top goalscorer,” said Keatings. “The last couple of games I’ve been on the bench so that means limited chances. When my chance comes I’ll be putting 100 per cent in to make sure I stay up there in the goals charts.
“The manager has brought Genero in and he’s done absolutely nothing wrong. He’s played seven games since he came here and scored eight goals. You can’t complain at that ratio. He’s come here and taken his chance and that’s a credit to him. It spurs you on as a striker watching him because you want to be in his position. That’s the way football is.
“One person goes in and has a good run of form, so you drop out. As long as the other guy in front of you is in good form, you have to put thoughts in the manager’s head with your form in training.”
Priority above all else is securing the title and guaranteeing Hearts’ return to top-flight football. “A couple of months ago, when we were ten and 12 points clear, that’s what’s been driving us on. We want our hands on the trophy and we want to be crowned champions,” stressed Keatings.
“Last season was a big disappointment [with Hamilton]. We were top of the league at Christmas time and looking towards the title, as we’re doing this season. Everybody wants to become champions and coming so close last year was a massive disappointment, although they did well to get promotion by beating Hibs in the play-offs. This season is going to be a personal high for me to win it.”