The Hibs squad will reconvene tomorrow for the start of pre-season, slightly lighter in numbers than the group which broke up a month ago, but certainly in far better nick than the bedraggled pool Alan Stubbs inherited on his first day at the helm a year ago today.
The head coach returned to Edinburgh this morning following a short summer break and he will welcome his players back to East Mains tomorrow to begin preparations for another tilt at promotion from the Ladbrokes Championship. Unlike last year when he arrived at the club to find the remnants of a team confidence-sapped by the trauma of relegation, many of whom would soon be shown the door, Stubbs can look forward to working with the core of a squad will only need some relatively minor tinkering ahead of the league opener at Dumbarton in just over six weeks’ time.
Aside from the goalkeeping department, which is in obvious need of reinforcement, all other areas of the squad are in reasonable fettle. As things stand, goalkeeping coach Alan Combe is likely to have only Sean Brennan, from the development squad, to work with for now. Kleton Perntreou and Tomas Cerny have left the club, while it remains to be seen if Mark Oxley will return following a successful loan spell from Hull City in which he was the club’s No.1 last season. Ben Williams, who spent two years at the club, and Lukasz Zaluska, who is out of contract after six years at Celtic, are among the keepers to have been mentioned in connection with the club.
Defensively, Stubbs could currently name a solid back four of David Gray, Jordon Forster, Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson from the group that will gather tomorrow. He will hope to add Liam Fontaine to this contingent in due course, with the Englishman still mulling over a contract offer. If a deal for the sure-footed 30-year-old falls through, at least one more defender will be required in the coming weeks. As yet, the club has made no contact with Keith Watson over the possibility of returning to Easter Road following an injury-hindered loan spell in the second half of last season.
Midfield was Hibs’ strongest area last term, but it will have a slightly depleted look tomorrow. Scott Robertson and Liam Craig, mainstays of the team over the past two years, have both moved on, while Dylan McGeouch, as things stand, is no longer a Hibs player following the expiry of his loan deal from Celtic. Academy products Sam Stanton, Danny Handling and Alex Harris remain on the books on long-term deals but have struggled to command regular game time under Stubbs. The club are unlikely to be difficult to deal with if any of them were to seek pastures new. Dundee are monitoring Stanton’s situation, while Kilmarnock are among those doing likewise with Harris.
That leaves Fraser Fyvie, Dan Carmichael, the new recruit from Queen of the South, and, of course, talisman Scott Allan as the most prominent midfielders of those who will be part of the group assembling tomorrow. Regardless of whether or not the in-demand Allan remains – Hibs are currently of no mind to cash in – Stubbs will have to bolster his midfield in the coming weeks. John McGinn and Jason Holt have already been sounded out, but the compensation fees which would be due to St Mirren and Hearts respectively have so far proved stumbling blocks. With Robertson gone, a defensive-minded midfielder will have to be sourced. In the event that he remains, Handling, who has spent most of his career as a striker or attacking midfielder, has already stated that he views himself as a sitting midfielder long term. Scott Martin and Conner Duthie have shown promise in the under-20s team and could find more first-team involvement this term.
Attack is currently Hibs’ best-stocked area. Last season’s established front two of Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings, who scored more than 30 goals between them, remain, while Farid El Alagui will hope to be a more effective force this term after having his first campaign at the club hampered by injury. James Keatings, who recently crossed the Edinburgh divide from Hearts, looks an obvious upgrade on Franck Dja Djedje, who had his 18-month contract cut short and left for Qatar earlier this month after failing to make a mark at Easter Road. Martin Boyle is unlikely to be fit enough to participate in training for a couple of weeks as he continues his recovery from the knee injury that tarnished the end of his spell on loan from Dundee last season, but, after signing a two-year deal with the Hibees, he will bring pace and versatility when fit. Stubbs has the option of using the former Montrose player as a striker, a wing-back or a roaming attacking midfielder.
Craig Flannigan, the sports scientist, gave every player their personal fitness programme to follow over their near-five-week break, so Stubbs can expect to find his charges in good condition when they split between East Mains and Queen Margaret University College in Musselburgh for their fitness checks tomorrow. This relative serenity is all a far cry from 24 June 2014, when the newly-appointed head coach walked into something of a shambles and had a massive overhaul on his hands.