At this time a year ago, Hibs were about to be forced into a managerial change. At this point two years ago, they had only found out a day earlier which division they would be playing in after losing to Rangers in the play-offs. Three years ago just now, they were a day shy of being relegated and thrown into all manner of chaos.
In short, the Easter Road club have, in recent times, generally been unable to properly begin planning for a new campaign until the onset of June. Sealing promotion in mid-April has greatly altered that scenario for the better this time round as they prepare for the start of their Premiership campaign in just over two months’ time.
The early confirmation of which division they will be operating in has allowed Neil Lennon and his staff to get a head-start in terms of shaping the squad for the new season. With a full four weeks remaining until the players return to work on Thursday June 22, Hibs have already made notable headway in terms of gearing up for the upcoming campaign. While there will always linger a degree of uncertainty until the day the transfer window closes in more than three months’ time, Hibs’ business thus far, allied to their stated intentions, suggests the team which kicks off the new season will have a relatively familiar look to it.
Here is how things are shaping up at Easter Road.
Who is already tied up?
There was mild concern among supporters that, with the majority of the squad running out of contract this summer, a group of players who had helped restore the club’s pride by winning the Scottish Cup and the Championship title over the past year might be broken up. As the end of the season approached, Hibs had only eight players contracted beyond this summer, and two of those were Danny Handling and Sam Stanton, who haven’t kicked a competitive first-team ball for the club for two years and 18 months, respectively. Jordon Forster, Paul Hanlon, Dylan McGeouch, John McGinn, Brian Graham and Jason Cummings were the only established first-team players tied down. Since the end of the season two-and-a-half weeks ago, however, a raft of out-of-contract mainstays have extended their contracts. Captain David Gray, long-serving double cup winner Lewis Stevenson, player of the year Darren McGregor, reliable back-up goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw and midfield enforcer Marvin Bartley all signed new deals earlier this month, while Lennon confirmed last week that attacker Martin Boyle and defender Liam Fontaine will follow suit. This means Hibs still have 13 players who were prominent in their Championship success, including eight of the XI who started the Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers a year ago.
Who has left?
Of those among the confirmed departures, strikers James Keatings and Grant Holt were the most notable. Both players were popular with supporters and played a significant part in winning promotion. Keatings offered versatility across the front area of the pitch and was an able deputy for Cummings, while Holt brought a physical presence to attack and acted as an effective foil for the top scorer. Brian McLean and Chris Humphrey also left upon the expiry of their short-term deals, while long-serving academy graduate Alex Harris didn’t have his contract renewed. Jamie Insall, an experimental signing by Alan Stubbs two years ago, has gone without ever featuring in the first team. Andrew Shinnie has returned to parent club Birmingham City after his loan deal expired, although the midfielder enjoyed his time in Edinburgh and, if not part of new Blues manager Harry Redknapp’s plans for next season, he would be open to a return to Hibs if the opportunity arose.
Who do they hope to retain?
Fraser Fyvie, who has been with Hibs for the past two and a half years, is out of contract and free to speak to other clubs if he wishes although the smart money remains on him accepting the deal on offer to remain at Easter Road. Ofir Marciano’s season-long loan deal from Ashdod has expired and Lennon has made no secret of the fact he is eager to get the goalkeeper back to Edinburgh for next season. Marciano has a year left on his deal in Israel, but is desperate to continue his career at Hibs, who are optimistic a deal can be struck with his current club. Efe Ambrose, who spent the last couple of months of the season at Easter Road on loan from Hibs, is due to become a free agent after leaving Celtic and Lennon said last week that a deal to bring him back to Edinburgh was “almost over the line”.
Who could leave?
As revealed in Monday’s Evening News, Stanton, who has been out of favour for the past three years, will depart, either permanently or on loan. Handling is in a similar boat. The future of prized assets Cummings and McGinn are likely to be the subject of speculation until the day the transfer window closes. Hibs have no desire to cash in on either player, but, as Lennon himself stated last month, every player has their price. If either of these two key men were to move on, it would be on Hibs’ terms, meaning they would be compensated by a hefty seven-figure transfer fee which could then be reinvested in the team. As things stand, both are viewed as integral members of a team with lofty aspirations for their return to the Premiership.
How will they strengthen?
St Johnstone talisman Danny Swanson has already been recruited to add creativity and goal threat to the team. If Marciano and Ambrose are recruited, that would leave both the goalkeeping and defensive departments in robust shape. Steven Whittaker is on Hibs’ radar after becoming a free agent and would offer extra competition in the full-back areas, although the former Norwich City and Scotland player, who has several suitors, is content to take time to decide his next move. Midfield activity will depend on whether Fyvie and McGinn stay on, although Lennon stated last week that he is keen to add a goal-scoring midfielder, something Hibs have been missing in recent seasons. Kris Commons, who enjoyed his short period on loan at Easter Road last season, is now a free agent after leaving Celtic and would appear to fit the bill. Lennon is also keen to add some width to the team. With Harris and Humphrey having departed, there are currently no natural wingers at the club. In addition, with Cummings, Graham and Boyle the only senior strikers on the books, at least one and probably two new players will be required to fill the voids left by Keatings and Holt. Teenager Oli Shaw will feature more prominently in the squad after a sensational season in the development league, but, for all that he is keen to promote young talent where possible, Lennon will be keen to add a couple of established strikers to the mix. Former Hibs player Anthony Stokes, who was in Leith last weekend a year on from his double in the Scottish Cup final, is one of those he is eager to add, although a move hinges on whether Blackburn Rovers opt to cut their losses on a player whose first year at Ewood Park has been a write-off. Simon Murray is set to become a free agent after Dundee United’s Premiership play-off final against Hamilton Accies concludes on Sunday, and Lennon is a long-time admirer. Hibs tried to sign the former Arbroath attacker last summer, and the manager made no secret of how much he rates the energetic redhead when waxing lyrical about him as he summarised United’s play-off matches against Falkirk for BT Sport last week. There is a decent chance he will be among a batch of new recruits added to an established and dependable core of mainstays.