Neil Lennon is set to field a much-changed Hibs team against Raith Rovers this evening as he gives several of his Championship-winning mainstays some time off.
With the league title tied up a week past Saturday and their Scottish Cup bid ended by Aberdeen at the weekend, the Easter Road side have nothing tangible to play for in their last three games of the season.
Lennon plans to utilise tonight’s match at home to relegation-threatened Rovers for experimental purposes, with the squad consisting predominantly of fringe men and development players such as Scott Martin, Innes Murray, Fraser Murray and Kevin Waugh. Centre-back Paul Hanlon could be listed among the substitutes after injury but the 27-year-old is unlikely to feature.
“I’ve given the majority of them off till Thursday. I want to use the squad. I need to look at some players for next season and I want to give the younger lads an opportunity. The main players have had a great season in all. A few days away will do them good, mentally and physically. I want to see what I’ve got for next season. I think that’s important. It will still be a strong team, with maybe an unfamiliar look to it.
“The development boys deserve an opportunity to get that experience now. I’ve got high hopes for some of them. They’ve had a really good season and I’ve enjoyed watching them play so a couple of them will figure. Kevin Waugh will be in the squad, Fraser Murray, Scott Martin, Innes Murray. I would like [Oli] Shaw and [Ryan] Porteous and people like that in as well but because of their loans they can’t figure. I’ve got high hopes for them as well next season, which is all good.”
Meanwhile, Lennon is hopeful that the majority of Hibs’ out-of-contract players will pledge their futures to the club for their return to the Premiership next season.
“They can talk to other clubs – that’s their prerogative, but we’ve made them offers,” said Lennon. “The majority of them are on decent money as it is. Some offers have been improved. I’m not losing any sleep over it. I think the majority of them will sign on. I’d be very surprised if they do go. I don’t think there’s many clubs out there who can offer them what we can. There’s a familiarity there. They’ve had a couple of great seasons and I think we can get better. It’s up to the players. I’ve pitched my case across to them. They’ll have their own personal issues, and maybe footballing reasons, but they would have to be really good footballing reasons to leave here now.”
One player who hasn’t been offered a contract is 36-year-old striker Grant Holt. “He is an isolated case,” said Lennon. “He has other things to think about as well in terms of his next step and in terms of his coaching development as well. I’d like him around but it might not be down to me.”
Lennon is eager to keep Ofir Marciano if a deal can be struck with his parent club over the summer. The highly-regarded goalkeeper has another year on his contract with FC Ashdod. “We’d like him to stay,” said Lennon. “Predominantly we will have a conversation with Dudu [Dahan, his agent]. I am sure finances will play a part. I am not sure what Ashdod will want to do. We have not touched on it. I have spoken to Ofir on Sunday and he is really happy here, which is great news for us. Whether we can strike a deal, I hope we can because I have got the goalkeeper in place that I want and they are hard to find.”
Lennon explained that he has had a chat with Fraser Fyvie, who was visibly annoyed at being substituted after 33 minutes on Saturday. “I saw him on Sunday [at the player of the year dinner] and I just asked him if he was okay,” said the manager. “He said he was fine. Look, he has every right to react the way he did, or feel the way he did. I would have been exactly the same. Gordon [Strachan] took me off in a cup final, and I wasn’t exactly delighted about it. But you understand. As a manager, I had to make a decision. It turned out to be the right decision. It wasn’t down to Fraser. The fact he was on a booking pre-empted that as well. I had to make a change.”
Lennon stood by his claim in the aftermath of the weekend defeat that Hibs are the second-best team in Scotland. “That’s my opinion,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with it. The facts are that Aberdeen are. But, from what I see, and what I saw on Saturday, if we had been in the Premiership this year, we would have been challenging for second place. We get the crowds, we have a good infrastructure. I think Rangers will be stronger next season. Whether they’ve got the resources to get Pedro [Caixinha] what he wants for next season, you’d like to think that year on year they will get stronger. To be fair to Derek [McInnes], he has done a fantastic job, probably everything that they could have asked of him, but I look at the game in isolation, and it doesn’t faze me at all. We played better football.”
Lennon is excited about the potential of his team in the Premiership. After landing Danny Swanson on a pre-contract, he intends to bolster other areas of the squad. “I need some quality adding to it,” he said. “But don’t forget I’ve got assets in the team as well that not many teams in Scotland have. We had round about a £2m bid for [Jason] Cummings last summer. Not many other clubs outwith Celtic and Rangers can attract that kind of money for players. And [John] McGinn obviously. There will be suitors out there for him as well. Again we would be looking for serious money if that was the case. I’m not saying we want to sell him. I’m saying this is what I have that makes me confident we can make a good fist of things next year.”