Keith Wright believes intense competition for places can drive Hibs back into Championship title contention.
The Easter Road squad was in a state of transition in the early weeks of the season and, after losing two of their opening three league games, they find themselves 11 points adrift of Rangers, albeit with a game in hand, as their campaign enters its second quarter today, at home to Dumbarton.
However, with several new signings arriving after the season started, and the likes of Fraser Fyvie, James Keatings, Jordon Forster, Islam Feruz, Adam Eckersley, Henri Anier and Farid El Alagui returning to contention after injury lay-offs, head coach Alan Stubbs now has a strong array of options in all departments of his squad.
“I’ve been very impressed with the players Alan has brought in and the competition for places it’s created,” said former Hibs striker Wright. “The start of the season was a bit stop-start because of injuries and the fact they were still getting players in, but now they’ve got a really strong squad.
“I know they’re chasing Rangers, and that will be a challenge considering how well they’re playing, but with the competition for places Hibs have got in all areas, they should be able to make things interesting. The players know that every Saturday they need to perform if they’re to stay in the team, which can only be good.”
Wright believes the strength of Hibs’ defence is underlined by the fact Stubbs must decide whether to restore Liam Fontaine, a mainstay of the team over the past year, to the starting line-up after he missed the 3-0 win at Queen of the South or stick with his replacement, Darren McGregor, whose credentials are highlighted by the fact he was Rangers’ player of the year last term and is yet to lose a goal in three starts in a Hibs jersey.
“Alan’s got a decision to make in defence,” said Wright. “I know Darren from my time at Cowdenbeath and he’s done well for himself. He’s a Hibs man so he’ll be desperate to do well there and make sure he’s a regular in the team. But Fontaine has been different class - he’s really consistent. Having two quality defenders like that fighting to get into the team is a good problem for the manager to have.”
Wright is particularly impressed with the strength of the midfield, an area of the team where young Sam Stanton has gone from main man to forgotten man in just over a year.
“The midfield competition is unbelievable, with young boys like [Liam] Henderson, [Fraser] Fyvie, [Dylan] McGeouch and [John] McGinn,” said Wright. “If those players want to be, they could be mainstays of the Hibs midfield for years to come. There are some real quality players there with their best years still in front of them.
“The fact Sammy Stanton can’t get a look-in shows the level they’ve taken it to because he was one of the best players two seasons ago. He’s a good player who is still developing but because of the quality of players there, he’ll need to learn off the others and get his performances to a really high level if he wants to play in that midfield.”
Hibs could have seven genuine options for an attacking berth in a matter of weeks, with Islam Feruz, James Keatings, Farid El Alagui and Henri Anier all close to returning from injury and ready to battle with Jason Cummings, Dominique Malonga and Martin Boyle for a slot. Wright believes Malonga, who appears to have rediscovered his mojo in recent weeks, is a perfect example of a player responding positively to increased competition.
“If you’re one of the strikers, you know you’re going to have to score goals and perform well whenever you’re in the team,” said Wright. “Malonga looks like he’s realised that the other guys are back fit and wanting into the team. He’s got to keep his game at a good level if he wants to stay in the team. Everyone knows he’s a good player but he doesn’t show it often enough. It’s time now for him to hit form and keep himself in the team because he’s the type of player who can go on a scoring run when he’s playing well.”
Wright is highly impressed with the way things are shaping up at Easter Road after several years of managerial changes, stop-gap signings and underwhelming football. “I think this is the strongest squad Hibs have had for a good few years,” he said. “The fans are looking forward to going to watch them again because they’ve got a good young team who like to play football. With the quality and the competition they’ve got, results are only going to improve.”