The Gambian Roberto Carlos may prove at least slightly removed from the Brazilian of the same name, but Hibs fans will have to wait for the type of stylish, cavalier approach synonymous with the latter as their club attempts to dig themselves out of the hole they share with Dunfermline at the foot of the SPL.
“I play like Roberto Carlos – that’s is what everybody calls me in Gambia,” says Pa Saikou Kujabi, Pat Fenlon’s sole permanent signing among a raft of new arrivals on transfer deadline day yesterday. “At my previous clubs, they’ve likened me to Roberto Carlos as well. I like to go forward and support the attack from left-back. I love playing like that.”
Such a prospect will be certain to excite Hibs fans, although Kujabi may have to wait to fulfil his promise of replicating the form of attacking flair once exhibited by fellow full-backs, and ex-Hibees, Ulises de la Cruz, Steven Whittaker, and David Murphy.
Former Hibs defender Craig Paterson, who made more than a century of appearances for the Easter Road club between 1979 and 1982 and now works as a radio football pundit, says Fenlon now has at his disposal a squad with the required attitude to avoid relegation – but that Kujabi and the likes of Callum Booth may have to reign in their natural desire to get forward for the time being.
“When you’re in the position Hibs are in, the first job is to defend,” said Paterson. “When you’re on a decent run, that’s when full backs can start to overlap wide players and go forward.
“Hibs aren’t making teams work hard enough to score against them. If they can do that, then they can work on the type of expansive football Hibs fans want to see. For the moment, it’s noses to the grindstone just to dig out the results they need. The football that’s nice to watch has to come later.”
Many Hibs fans may well gladly endure months of miserable football as long as their team survived.
Given Hibs’ league position and defensive troubles – they have conceded ten goals in their last four games – it is understandable that Fenlon’s focus in recent weeks has been on bolstering his backline. Norwich City full-back George Francomb and Coventry centre back James McPake have both arrived on loan, while the versatile Matt Doherty yesterday signed on a temporary deal from Wolves with a view to slotting in anywhere across the defence.
Francomb impressed in last weekend’s 4-0 defeat to Rangers, while Paterson feels the Hibs boss has found in McPake the type of player required to successfully negotiate their way up the league.
“It’s down to the players to turn it round – the manager can only do so much and, in times of crisis, your big players need to perform.
“McPake didn’t play for 90 minutes at the weekend but was vocal at the back and showed good leadership. It would be lovely if Fenlon could nail a back five – counting the goalkeeper – to build a solid foundation. The manager has given plenty of players the opportunity but they haven’t all grabbed it.
“Garry O’Connor and Leigh Griffiths are back among the goals, but it’s time for one or two others to score goals. Without those two on Saturday against Rangers, Ivan Sproule was Hibs’ top goalscorer with two goals all season.
“The players know exactly the situation they’re in, and every weekend it’s hard graft. They’re the only people who can dig themselves out. The same goes for the new players who have come in – there’s no time to settle properly, and the manager needs them to hit ground running. Fortunately for Hibs, they are not adrift at the bottom of the SPL on their own.”
Bottom club Dunfermline, who have themselves struggled since returning to the top flight as First Division champions and sit a point below Hibs, made improvements of their own yesterday with the permanent signing of 23-year-old defender Jordan McMillan from Rangers and by loaning his Gers team-mate Kyle Hutton.
It goes without saying that Jim McIntyre’s Fifers, despite being early-season favourites for the drop, will not accept consignment to the second tier lightly. At the same time, Hibs cannot afford to rely on their rivals to simply drop points; the pressure is on Fenlon’s men to begin to construct a winning run, the type of which last season helped lift them from trouble under manager Colin Calderwood as the SPL split approached.
“Dunfermline are the new team in the league and are looking to cope with SPL football,” explained Paterson. “They don’t have the budget Hibs do, and Jim McIntyre will point to that to put pressure on Fenlon.
“It’s because of the size of Hibs that they can’t afford to play First Division football. They have a wonderful new stadium and training complex, and it’s vital they stay in top division. It’s a serious situation but there is time to turn things round.
“A couple of results, fortunate or not, puts points on the board and gives them something to build on. Hibs have never won consecutive games this season, so it is a big ask, but at the end of last season when they were in a bad time, they ran off five wins.
“It’s a difficult one for the manager, he’s had to get players in he thinks can make a difference. Confidence is in short supply, and it looks like a dogfight between Hibs and Dunfermline. The club needs something good to happen – and soon.”
Paterson pinpoints the lack of shutouts achieved by the Hibs defence this season as the downfall that has contributed most towards a poor campaign. In the last 24 months, Hibs have played 68 SPL games – and in only 11 have they prevented the opposition from scoring. This season alone, that league record reads three in 24.
“The biggest problem just now is a lack of clean sheets,” said Paterson. “You’ve got to go back to the 0-0 at Parkhead [in October] for their last one. When you’re losing goals on a weekly basis, you’re going to be under pressure.
“At the moment, Hibs are looking for a strength to build on, but they are conceding at one end and not scoring at the other.”
Both scoring and preventing the concession of goals is a challenge to be accepted by players across all positions throughout the team, but Hibs, as some of the calamitous acts of “defence” witnessed at Ibrox attest, suffer from a decidedly frail backline. However, Paterson is upbeat about the club’s chances of remaining in the SPL, saying that the evidence of the requisite character in the Hibs squad was laid bare in the 3-2 victory at Dunfermline in mid-January.
“It’s not going to be easy. Hibs have had one home win all season – that kind of stat tells you where they are. They produced the goods against Dunfermline when all eyes were on them, and that’s the kind of spirit and determination they’ll need in the next few weeks.”