Memories of Hibs’ Scottish Cup triumph last May are never far away for James Keatings. The 25-year-old striker drives past the scene of his greatest day in football virtually every weekend on his way to visit his mum, who lives in the shadow of the national stadium.
Tomorrow, he will enter the old place for the first time since David Gray’s stoppage-time header sealed a famous 3-2 win over Rangers in the final last May. The intention is to set up the chance of a repeat by slaying Aberdeen in the semi-final. “I’ve not been back at all so this will be my first time back since we won the Scottish Cup,” Keatings told the Evening News. “My mum stays next to Hampden so I drive past it most weekends. Driving by, it’s always a nice memory of something I never thought I would do when I was growing up. I watched my heroes winning cups at Hampden when I was a boy but to actually be able to say I’ve done it and then drive by it every so often, it’s nice. I think about the moment we scored, the final whistle going, the scenes after it and the days after it. Those memories will never leave me. It’ll be nice to walk back into Hampden this weekend, but we’re hoping to create new memories. When you’ve won promotion a few times and won the Scottish Cup, it drives you on to feel more success.”
Keatings has scored 17 goals in his two years at Hibs – 12 last term and five so far this season. His most high-profile strikes in a green jersey ultimately counted for nothing as he netted a double on the ill-fated night at Falkirk Stadium when their play-off bid was ended by the Bairns last May. He craves a goal of genuine significance in one of Scotland’s showpiece matches. A semi-final winner at Hampden would fall into that category.
“It’s every player’s dream to score crucial goals on the big occasions,” he said. “As a striker, that’s what you want to do. It’s something you focus on. It was the same last year in the cup final. Although I missed out from the start, when I was sitting on the bench I was always focusing on trying to be ready to go on and do something in the game if I got my chance, and hopefully get a goal. I put Stokesy [Anthony Stokes] through and he had a shot that was tipped away for a corner. He then scored from the corner so I feel I played a part in it, but I want a big goal at Hampden.”
Keatings has started 15 of Hibs’ 44 competitive matches this season and has made another 12 appearances off the bench. When he has featured, the former Hamilton Accies and Hearts forward has often been utilised in a more withdrawn role, with top scorer Jason Cummings favoured in attack alongside a target man like Grant Holt or Brian Graham.
“It’s been a season where I’ve not really featured in my favoured position,” he said. “I’ve only played five games as a striker. Most of my season’s been in other positions – left wing, right wing, in the hole. At the start of the season you set yourself a target to beat last season’s goal tally but I’ve not really had the chance to build on last season. The manager’s asked me to do a job and I’ve not made a fuss about it. I’ll play in whatever position he needs me.
“He spoke to me earlier in the season and said he felt I was a good footballer who could create goals and link-up play as well as score goals. He felt I could play in various positions, and he’s tried that this season. I’ve managed to get a good few games under my belt. I’d love to have had more of a run at it but there are plenty players in this team who have got quality.”
Keatings is desperate for a prolonged run as an outright striker, although he recognises that, as long as Cummings – widely regarded as the hottest young striker in Scotland – is banging in the goals, he will have to bide his time.
“At the last two clubs I’ve been at – here and Hearts – I’ve not been able to get a proper run as a striker,” he said. “I had a wee run at Hearts when Osman Sow was injured and I scored six goals in eight appearances but then when Osman got fit I drifted out the team again and was coming on as sub. As a player, you need time on the pitch to get the sharpness and confidence you need to build momentum. It can be hard to do that when you’re in and out.
“At Hibs, the manager wants to play a big striker alongside Jason, so it’s hard to get in my preferred position. Jason’s on fire this season and he’s scoring crucial goals. Watching someone who’s in your position doing so well, you can’t argue with it. You just keep encouraging him to do well because it’s a team game. He’s a top boy and a good friend of mine away from the pitch. I’m absolutely delighted for him.”
Cummings was at the centre of attention this week when he dressed up as a wrestler and playfully attacked professional wrestler Grado while he was having lunch in the canteen. Keatings, usually one of the dressing-room jesters himself, admitted even he was shocked when he saw his pal’s latest act of high jinks. “I didn’t expect it one bit,” he said. “One minute he was in the canteen in his training kit talking away and then next minute he comes back in dressed as a wrestler. I don’t think anyone apart from Dylan [McGeouch] had any idea what he was up to.
“I don’t think he’d met Grado before – he just knew him from his videos and stuff like that. He just has crazy stuff going through his head constantly, and then he just goes and does things. He’s hilarious. It’s brilliant to have him in the dressing-room because he lightens the mood. One of the best things about him is that he’s never too serious. Even before games, he just seems to take everything in his stride. He’s a great character.”