Hibs may have had the wind removed from their sails in last Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, but they have two shiny new attacking options ready to come into the side and help get them back on the front foot this weekend.
Suspensions to Lewis Stevenson and Scott Robertson incurred in the defeat by Hearts ensure there will be at least two changes to the starting XI for Saturday’s Championship clash with Falkirk, while the lack of productivity from Hibs’ creative players at Tynecastle could prompt Alan Stubbs to make further tweaks.
Either way, Scott Allan, the 22-year-old playmaker, and Matt Kennedy, the 19-year-old winger, are sure to be in contention for their first starts in green-and-white after having to content themselves with a couple of late cameo outings off the bench since moving to Easter Road earlier this month.
Billy Stark is well aware of the qualities of both of these highly-regarded young players having monitored them closely in his capacity as Scotland Under-21 manager. He believes that Hibs can provide the perfect platform for them to recapture the form that won them moves to the English Premier League before they had even made 15 appearances for their respective clubs in Scotland.
Allan, the former Dundee United player who left for West Brom, was a prominent member of Scotland’s Under-21 team up until two years ago and Stark is confident he will become a dominant figure in the Hibs midfield.
“I think Scott will be a good fit for Hibs,” Stark told the Evening News. “He’s a very talented boy. His big plus is that he really wants to affect the game. He wants to get on the ball and work the ball. He can certainly beat players from the middle of the park and play penetrating passes. He’s a very dynamic midfield player – he really comes alive with the ball.”
With several players having been deemed to have wilted amid the negativity that has engulfed Easter Road in recent seasons, Stark is adamant that Allan has too much self-confidence to be hindered by any sense of anxiety surrounding the club. “People talk about a lack of confidence at Easter Road, but Scott’s a very confident boy and that’ll not faze him,” he said. “He’ll still go out and want to play his game. He knows he’s a good player and he wants to show people that. Sometimes he can overdo it a bit – I’ve spoken to him long and often about it – but he’s been trying to improve on that. With players like that, you find that they tend to mature and get better at picking the right passes at the right time. I’m sure he’ll have matured as a player since he’s been down in England.”
Some view Allan as an automatic replacement for the banned Robertson this weekend, and while that may indeed prove to be the case, Stark feels he is far more effective in an advanced midfield role, just behind the main striker. “The defensive side of his game still needs a bit of work,” he explained. “He needs to have a bit more awareness of his defensive responsibilities, but he’s been working on that. I saw him in a reserve game for Birmingham at Derby towards the end of last season and he looked like he had got better at tracking runs and doing the defensive stuff.
“Personally, I’d never have thought of playing him as one of the two sitting in midfield. That might be possible if he’s matured in terms of his defensive work, but, for me, he’s definitely a middle-to-front player.”
Kennedy, the former Kilmarnock kid who joined on loan from Everton a fortnight ago, made his only Under-21 appearance against Portugal under Ricky Sbragia almost two years ago when Stark had temporarily stepped up to take charge of the full national team following Craig Levein’s departure. Nonetheless, Stark has been following his progress closely with a view to bringing him back into the squad for the 2017 European Championship qualifying campaign which gets under way next year.
“Matty’s come through the ranks at international level,” said Stark. “He’s been in a couple of 21s squads as a young one to get some experience but he’s mainly been with Ricky in the Under-19s. I’ve watched a lot of him, though. I went down to see him playing for Tranmere [on loan] last year and for the first half hour he was their best player. He can come inside and play and score a goal, but he’s a definite winger. He’ll hug the touchline. He’s got quick feet to draw defenders in, get away from them and deliver a cross. Like all young wingers, the defensive stuff is not something he particularly relishes, but he’s been improving that part of his game. Alan will know better than anybody what he can do having worked with him at Everton.”
Stark hopes to see Kennedy get regular game time at Hibs and force his way into the Under-21 set-up. “I’m delighted he’s gone to Hibs because Alan wouldn’t have brought him if he didn’t intend on using him,” he said. “He’s been identified as one with good potential and he’s now in the 1994 age-group, which is the next group of Under-21s, so hopefully we’ll have him in there soon.”