George FRANCOMB believes Pat Fenlon has strengthened his squad not only in the number of new players he’s brought to Hibs, but by their versatility.
The entrance to Easter Road was replaced by a revolving door during the January transfer window as Fenlon snapped up eight new players, including on-loan Norwich City youngster Francomb, and released six more as he sought to turn the ailing club’s fortunes around.
And the early signs have been promising, a narrow victory over Kilmarnock to clinch a place in the quarter-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup and a draw with Aberdeen, a result which keeps them just ahead of Dunfermline in the battle to avoid the drop.
Although disappointed not to have taken all three points against the Dons, Fenlon, however, could take some comfort from a second successive clean sheet for the first time in a year and the fact his new-look squad had withstood an immediate test of its depth. With new skipper James McPake and fellow defender Paul Hanlon suspended, Fenlon was forced into reshuffling his back four, Gambian internationalist Pa Kujabi the only member of that unit to begin against the Dons in the position he’d filled for the visit of Killie seven days earlier.
Francomb came in at right-back as Wolves youngster Matt Doherty moved from that berth to central defence to partner Sean O’Hanlon, who was recalled to the side having sat out the Cup clash.
Unfamiliar they might have been with each other, but despite that, goalkeeper Graham Stack was again rarely troubled. Francomb said: “It was virtually two different defences with only Pa staying in place.
“But it shows that while we have great competition for places with the new players the gaffer has brought in, we also have versatile players. Matt moved from right-back to centre-half as if he’d played there all his life. I can play midfield as I did on my debut against Dunfermline, Paul can play either in the middle or at left-back where Pa and Callum Booth are also battling for the jersey.
“There’s great versatility throughout the squad with players able to fill a variety of positions and that only helps add to the competition for places.”
And that competition intensified during this week’s training sessions at the club’s East Mains base ahead of Sunday’s showdown with SPL leaders Celtic, with McPake and Hanlon now free from suspension as is striker Leigh Griffiths, who had been forced to miss Hibs’ last three matches for his well- publicised misdemeanours.
McPake and Hanlon will obviously be hoping to impress sufficiently to go straight back into action but Griffiths returns to find on-loan Coventry City hitman Roy O’Donovan also now vying with top-scorer Garry O’Connor and Eoin Doyle for a place in Fenlon’s strikeforce.
Francomb said: “Everyone knows they won’t have it easy. There are a number of players fighting for every position. The boys who might not have played one week will be determined to be picked the next while those in the side know they have to perform or someone else might take their place. It can only be good for the team.”
Fenlon now has plenty of options up front and at the back has Ian Murray, once he is fully recovered from an operation, David Stephens and Richie Towell to call on. In the middle of the park, the arrivals of Tom Soares from Stoke and Honduran internationalist Jorge Claros mean it’s all become a little tougher for the likes of Isaiah Osbourne, David Wotherspoon, Lewis Stevenson, Ivan Sproule, Martin Scott and Danny Galbraith.
Stevenson, in fact, found himself pushed wide left to accommodate Claros on his debut, the one-time Rangers target impressing the home fans as they caught a first glimpse of the 26-year-old in a green and white shirt although his new team-mates were already convinced from what they had seen in training that the star from Central America will be a valuable addition.
The 20-year-old revealed he’d got an early introduction to the midfielder’s willingness to do the “other” side of the game although he insisted his team-mate’s nickname of “Pitbull” shouldn’t be misinterpreted.
The 20-year-old said: “Jorge gave me a kick on the shin in training last Thursday. Nothing malicious, but he definitely knows how to put his foot in.
“I think his nickname comes from his tenacity, his willingness to work, as we saw against Aberdeen when he made a 50-yard run tracking someone back before getting his tackle in. I thought Jorge did really well, he seems to find himself with a bit more time on the ball and he can certainly spot a pass.”
Francomb readily conceded Celtic will provide even stiffer opposition for Fenlon’s new-look side, the Glasgow outfit arriving in the Capital on the back of 17 straight wins in domestic competition and with the SPL title virtually assured following the ten-point deduction imposed on Old Firm rivals Rangers following their plunge into administration.
However, he insisted Hibs, the last side to take a point from the Hoops, can approach the match with a new-found confidence and resilience, the back-to-back clean sheets having come in the immediate wake of shipping seven goals in their previous two games.
He said: “We had mixed feelings after the draw with Aberdeen, it was good to get a point but disappointing not to take all three.
“We thought we’d played well and created enough chances but we were pleased with another clean sheet, that’s something to build on.
“Hopefully, we can clock up another one on Sunday, the pleasing thing being that in addition to the shut-outs, Graham Stack has hardly had a save to make in 180 minutes of football.”
Goalkeeper Stack is in no doubt Fenlon’s signings have brought a change of attitude into the Easter Road dressing-room simply by their presence. He said: “Sometimes in a squad when you are being beaten every week there’s that mentality that sets in.
“Unfortunately it does happen. New boys coming in can change it around, they have not been involved in all the negativity, poor performances and bad results. A few new faces and personalities gives everyone a lift.”