James Keatings turned his back on guaranteed Premiership football next season, but he firmly believes it’s just going to take him just a little while longer to get there after his surprise move to Hibs.
Told by Hearts boss Robbie Neilson he would be unlikely to get as much first-team football as he’d like with the newly-promoted Tynecastle outfit, Keatings was all set to join one of those clubs who’ll be facing the Gorgie club when the action gets underway once more in a few weeks.
But the 23-year-old surprised everyone by having a last-minute change of mind after Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs made his move, a quick chat with Alex Neil, his former manager at Hamilton Accies, helping persuade him a switch to Easter Road was his best move.
And if crossing the “great divide” in Edinburgh may upset a few Hearts supporters, Keatings insisted that joining Stubbs’ squad represented the best opportunity to move his career forward.
Admitting he was surprised Hibs hadn’t followed their Capital neighbours into the top flight, Keatings said: “I thought they would have gone up through the play-offs. I thought they were the stand-out team.
“They played football the right way throughout the season but in the play-offs they fell a wee bit short. I won promotion with Hamilton two years ago, Hearts last season and I’m aiming for the same thing with Hibs next season. It will be a tough league to get out of, it always is with the likes of Rangers, Falkirk, St Mirren and Queen of the South all in it.
“But I have got a really good feeling about it, you saw the way Hibs played last season. They played great football and I have no doubts they’ll do that next season. There’s no doubt we can do a ‘Hearts,’ Hibs are more than capable. We have players in this squad who can live up to that, no bother at all.”
Although he scored 11 goals in just 18 starts in a maroon jersey, Keatings became frustrated towards the end of the season as it became evident he was falling out of Neilson’s plans – and if his former team-mates were caught on the hop by his switch to their big rivals, he revealed a number have already been in touch to wish him all the best.
He said: “The Hearts boys understand what I have done, they knew it was frustrating for me. I was close to a few of the boys in there and they knew what was going on. Obviously you have your chats with your team-mates and they have their own issues as well.
“It was a frustrating time for me at Hearts near the end of it and that was the big factor. When everybody was injured I played my part. I came in when there were no other strikers and I scored goals and I won games for them. The manager was the one who came out and said I carried the team for that period of time.
“I just felt when everybody got fit I was pushed to the side and I wasn’t allowed back in. But that’s just the way football is, it’s his opinion and he’ll pick the team that is best for him,”
Keatings initially expressed his wish to stay at Tynecastle and fight for his place during the second year of his contract with Hearts but an agreement paving the way for his departure was struck, prompting a fair bit of interest from other clubs.
He said: “Last week I agreed with Hearts that I would leave. They were great with me at the point where last season was coming to an end and I thought I was going to move at some point. But there were some complications as to whether my leaving was down to my consent or the club’s consent.
“We came to an agreement where I left and I was close to signing for a Premiership club a few days ago. It was close, very close. But then I got a few phone calls from other clubs and I thought this was the best opportunity for me.”
Keatings insisted that the fact Hibs won’t be facing Hearts in the immediate future – barring being drawn together in cup competition – didn’t make his decision easier.
“It didn’t matter what league Hearts were in,” he said, “a lot of Premiership clubs were after me as well. I just felt after speaking to the manager and people at the club that this was the best opportunity to take my career forward. I knew I would upset a few [Hearts] fans but I need to think about my career and my football.
“This is a great opportunity for me coming to a club like Hibs. I will do my best here. I have done my best the past two years for the clubs I have played for and I am going to give it 100 per cent. The facilities are here and the way they have developed players over the past season like Scotty Allan and Jason Cummings, I think I can be the next one.”
While some may question Keatings’ ambition in rejecting a move to the Premiership when it was on offer, he’s convinced top-flight football has simply been put on hold for the time being.
He said: “Premiership football is obviously the aim for every young Scottish player, you want to play at the highest level and that is our highest level. It was a big thought in my mind, but after speaking to the manager here and people in the background I don’t think it was a big U-turn for me to come here.
“It was late on, I only had a day or two to think about it. But the manager made me feel wanted, valued. He just made me feel really good. And the fact he drove up from Liverpool to see me sign was really good.”
Keatings also sought the advice of Neil, his old boss who has just taken Norwich City back into the English Premier League.
He revealed: “I don’t think Alex knows Alan, it wasn’t that. We had a brief chat on the phone – he was actually on holiday – and I just asked for a bit of advice and what he thought was good for me. He didn’t push me in any direction, he left it down to me.
“But he put a few things across and after speaking to him I really wanted to come here.”