Joker James Keatings deadly serious about Hibs starting slot

James Keatings, pictured against Birmingham's Andrew Shinnie, is keen to establish a starting place this term. Pic: SNS
James Keatings, pictured against Birmingham's Andrew Shinnie, is keen to establish a starting place this term. Pic: SNS
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James Keatings and Jason Cummings are the jokers in the Easter Road dressing-room, their team-mates having to be ever alert to their pranks.

But out on the pitch the 
joking stops, both deadly 
serious when it comes to the business of scoring goals with the pair finding themselves fighting each other for a place in Hibs starting line-up.

As top-scorer in the past two seasons, Cummings has invariably been given the nod ahead of his close pal and although that has done nothing to 
weaken their friendship, 
Keatings, who himself has got into double figures in each of the last three years, is determined to do all he can to force boss Neil Lennon to make him his No.1 choice.

Having come off the bench in both legs of Hibs Europa League tie against Danish side Brondby, the 24-year-old was given his opportunity to 
impress as Lennon, given the toll those 120 minutes in Copenhagen three days earlier had exacted on his players, fielded a team packed with fringe and young players in their latest pre-season friendly against English Championship outfit Birmingham City who were at almost full-strength.

And it was a chance Keatings grabbed with both hands, 
taking Martin Boyle’s pass 
before creating a yard of space and then swivelling to fire a 
rising shot beyond the 
Brummies’ Polish goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak for the only goal of the game.

Although Birmingham’s central defenders Michael 
Morrison and Ryan Shotton towered over him – Keatings joking that they were “a half-size up” – the former Hamilton and Hearts hitman insisted he had relished the challenge that formidable barrier had posed.

He said: “They were very strong so it was a good test. The manager said to go out, get my fitness and hopefully get a few goals. I had a header I should have done better with and then that shot.

“I had the opportunity to show the manager what I can do, I feel I played well, got my goal and hopefully I can keep doing that and get into the starting XI.”

Although he made 44 appearances in what was a marathon season for Hibs last season, 18 of them came from the bench, Keatings admitting he got frustrated at times such as 
scoring twice against Falkirk as the Bairns ended the 
Capital club’s promotion hopes and then finding himself among the substitutes once again for that historic Scottish Cup triumph over Rangers.

“There is a frustration there,” he confessed. “When I’ve had my chance I’ve done it sometimes and sometimes I haven’t. But sometimes I have and then found myself back on the bench. But I have always kept my head down, worked hard in training and never made a fuss.”

The arrival of veteran striker Grant Holt would appear to make it the 35-year-old plus one up-front with Cummings having got the nod so far, but Keatings doesn’t see Lennon’s options limited to such a partnership saying: “Grant’s a 
different style, a target man, a big boy. We can go back-to-front with him and play off him as Jason has been, so it’s up to me to keep training hard and when the opportunity comes to take it.

“I don’t want to be sitting on the bench, I want to be playing. No player wants to be sitting on the bench and the manager knows that. As far as I am concerned if you are happy to be on the bench then you shouldn’t be a footballer.

“I’m in the last year of my contract here so this is a 
massive season for me. I’ve loved every minute of being here, we’ve got a great bunch of boys and I’m very happy. But I need to show what I can do, score goals and hopefully earn myself a new deal.”

Although his rivalry on the pitch with Cummings is 
intense, Keatings insisted it doesn’t spill over into their lives away from the game, the former Celtic kid the victim of his team-mate’s latest stunt as the team’s charter plane 
prepared to touch down in Denmark.

He said: “I’m not a good flyer so when we were landing I was just sitting there trying to relax and the next thing water gets poured over my head which didn’t really help much.

“Jason’s winning 2-1 at the moment but he’s been running scared since. We’re close, really close. We’re the jokers of the team, keeping the boys on their toes. But obviously I don’t want Jason not to do well when he’s playing. I want him to do brilliantly, I want him to go out there and score goals for the team. However, both of us play in the same position, we’re playing for our place, but for all that we are good friends.

“I played with Jason last 
season, at times I kept him out of the team for a spell. But Jason will get you goals week in, week out and I need to live up to that as well, to play to a high standard, to keep doing well in training and adding to the competition which has been made that bit tougher with Grant Holt here now as well.”