James Keatings leaves Hibs with a heavy heart, but the striker insists he had no option but to move on in order to progress his career.
In finalising a pre-contract with Dundee United on Monday, the 25-year-old called time on a fruitful two-year stint at Easter Road which brought 20 goals, Scottish Cup glory and a Championship winner’s medal.
He enjoyed playing for the Hibs support, who welcomed him from the moment he crossed the Edinburgh divide to sign from Hearts in summer 2015, and loved being one of the dressing-room ringleaders among what he described as “the best group of boys I’ve worked with”. But the one thing missing during his time at Easter Road was the chance to start regularly and generate momentum in his favoured position as a striker. While the chance to remain at a buoyant club on its way back to the Premiership held obvious appeal, continuing as a bit-part player didn’t.
In an exclusive interview with the Evening News, Keatings explained why he felt he had to snub the offer of a new two-year contract at Hibs and instead pledge his future to a United side who are currently trying to win promotion from the Championship through the play-offs.
“The last two years have been the most enjoyable of my career because of the boys in the changing room,” he said. “Leaving them was the most gutting part about my decision, but I had to focus on my own future. I could have taken the contract Hibs offered me but I sat down with the right people and spoke about what’s best for me. And for me, I need to be playing. It was no good for me towards the end, coming off the bench and playing left wing or right wing. The love for playing for Hibs was always there – and no matter what position I was playing, all I thought about was doing my best for the team.
“But the major part in my decision was the playing situation. I had only ever been a striker until I went to Hibs, and, at this time in my career, it’s a major thing for me to go and play in my natural position and get the run of games I need. I need to go and play. Sitting on the bench and coming on for 15 minutes isn’t going to further my career. I’ve done well in the last two years when I’ve had the opportunities, but I need a run of games to show how good I really am. Without playing regularly, you can’t really show what you’re capable of. I believe if I get a run of games I’ll score more goals and contribute more to the team in terms of assists and things like that. I want to learn and improve, and the only way you do that is by getting minutes on the pitch. You can train all week with the manager and team, but I think you learn most from game situations.”
Although he was featuring regularly in an attacking midfield role early in the season before picking up an injury in October, Keatings started only three of Hibs’ final 15 games of their Championship-winning campaign. With Jason Cummings in command of the striker’s berth he craved, he started to sense in recent months that his future lay elsewhere. “When the contract was offered about six weeks, two months ago, that was when I really started thinking about my future,” he said. “Obviously my biggest problem was one my best mates in the team – Jason. At my last two clubs, I’ve had two quality strikers playing in front of me – Jason at Hibs and Osman [Sow] at Hearts.
“The way the gaffer played this season was with a big striker and a wee striker and I don’t think he’d play with two wee ones. Jason was obviously number one, and it’s hard to push him out.
“I couldn’t chap the gaffer’s door and say ‘give me my chance’ because Jason’s been hot the last two seasons. He’s scoring goals week in, week out, so I couldn’t complain. His record is immense for his age, and I believe he’ll keep on scoring, so it’s obviously hard to knock someone like him out the team. And no doubt Hibs will strengthen again during the summer. It was a hard decision to leave but I had to make it because I didn’t want to be a player who sat and looked on and hoped I’d get 20 minutes in a game to make an impact. Fozzy [Jordon Forster] said a few weeks ago that I wear my heart on my sleeve, and it’s true. When I’m not playing, I get on with it, but I think everybody can see I just want to be playing regularly as a number one striker and scoring goals.
“I could have signed my two-year deal at Hibs, sat on the bench and happily picked up my wage every week but I don’t want to be known as a player who accepted sitting on the bench and had no ambition to play football. I believe I have the ability to play and score goals week in, week out, and achieve things in football. I’ve achieved something in each of the last four years of my career, and that gives you a hunger to go and achieve more. That was in my thinking as well. I wanted to pick a team that could challenge, and I think Dundee United can do that whatever division they’re in.”
Keatings, who has amassed 48 goals in 93 starts over the past five years since leaving Celtic, is well aware of the mischievous barbs doing the rounds about his decision to sign for United being driven by a craving for the Championship and a phobia of top-flight football after he left Hamilton, Hearts and now Hibs at the end of a promotion-winning campaign to – potentially – step back down to the second tier. He is amused by such a notion and is hopeful United – who lead Morton 2-1 in the play-off quarter-final – can clinch promotion over the next few weeks so he can start delivering in the Premiership. “I laugh at it every time I see it,” he said of the suggestion that he’s a Championship specialist. “It actually does make me laugh. One of my mates who I played with at Hamilton was joking about it the other day. I had a good chat with him though and we both said the standard in the Championship isn’t far off the standard in the Premiership, outwith the Old Firm and Aberdeen.
“I’ve already shown I can hold my own at Hibs and Hearts, who are two massive clubs. That Hearts team I played in went up and straight into the top half of the Premiership and I’m certain this Hibs team will do the same. I fully believe I’m equipped to play in the Premiership, so hopefully Dundee United get up through the play-offs and I get to show that. I had offers from clubs already in the Premiership, but I didn’t feel they were right for me. I want to play in a team that’s going to be going forward and challenging to win games every week whatever league they’re in. I spoke to [United manager] Ray McKinnon a couple of weeks ago and he came across amazing. He wanted me at the club, and the feeling of being wanted was brilliant for me. The way he wanted to play and the way he saw me fitting in was key to me making the move. People can say I’m dropping down the leagues all the time, but I’m dropping down for the right reasons – not the wrong ones.”
Keatings admits the pull of Hibs tugged at him emotionally in his last few days at the club. On Saturday, he donned the green-and-white jersey for the final time as a late substitute against St Mirren before the team collected the Championship trophy in front of 19,000 supporters in the Leith sunshine. Within 48 hours, he was sending his last message in the Hibs WhatsApp group chat.
“I knew before Saturday’s game I was leaving, so it was weird,” he said. “I think a few of the boys could tell as well. Marvin [Bartley] asked me what was up with me because I wasn’t going to the celebrations afterwards or the PFA awards on Sunday. It felt weird walking round the pitch at the end knowing it was my last time in a Hibs jersey. It was a sad feeling.
“Winning two trophies in two years was massive – obviously the Scottish Cup was the major one. That was one of the best days yet for me – I’ll live with it for the rest of my life. To be part of that was massive. People will still be talking about it for years to come, and whenever any of us speak in the future, we’ll always have that bond from being part of the group that finally won it.
“I said my goodbyes in the group chat. A few boys saw the news on Monday and text straight away. As soon as it was confirmed, I sent a big message on the group chat thanking them. I was gutted saying cheerio and leaving the group chat. I know I’ll keep in touch with most of them, but that was the hardest part because they’re the best bunch of boys I’ve worked with so far. It’s a really tight group full of top players. If you leave the club, even on loan, you leave the group chat. Danny [Handling] was the group admin and when he left to go to Raith Rovers, he passed it to me. I had to kick Danny out the chat, and now I’ve had to kick myself out of the chat. I’ve passed the admin on to Marvin, so I’m sure he’ll handle it well! It was very sad though. What your team-mates think of you means a lot, so all the messages I got from the boys were brilliant, really touching. They’re a great bunch, and I’ve got no doubt they’ll be strong again next season.”