Hibs boss Pat Fenlon has promised Easter Road kids Ross Caldwell and Danny Handling they remain very much in his plans despite the arrival of veteran striker Shefki Kuqi.
The 35-year-old former Finnish international hitman became Fenlon’s eighth summer signing and, while he is expected to fight for his place alongside Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle, teenagers Caldwell and Handling, who have both been on the bench for Hibs’ opening games of the season, won’t be discarded.
Although they’ve stepped up to Fenlon’s first-team squad, the pair, both aged just 18, have staked their claim by rattling in the goals in the newly formed Under-20 League, Caldwell having scored five and Handling four as Hibs defeated Ross County 3-1 and then hammered St Mirren 8-1.
Fenlon admitted that while ideally he’d prefer to get the youngsters out on loan – Handling scored seven goals in as many games after being farmed out to Berwick Rangers last season – his squad is too small to allow that to happen.
He said: “It’s a bit of a Catch 22 situation because realistically getting them out on loan to play on a regular basis is probably more healthy for them.
“But we just do not have a big enough squad to be able to do that. They will, though, get their opportunity to play here. The two of them are very good players and will improve. They’ve both stepped up to the first-team dressing-room and training with the first team will help them.
“Over the season they will get games, they are two different types of players but both can finish. They scored plenty in the Under-19s last year and they’ve already started well in the reserve league.”
Doyle and Griffiths are likely to start as Hibs’ strikeforce against St Johnstone tomorrow, with Kuqi admitting he needs to fine-tune his fitness, but Fenlon believes that over time, the arrival of the much-travelled Finn and the emerging Caldwell and Handling will ensure he has plenty of options up-front.
He said: “We have a number of different players and we can maybe get two or three different combinations with them which is important. If we want to change the way we play then we have to have different type of players. Eoin likes to play off the shoulder of people, Leigh is a little bit similar, Shefki can hold the ball up for us, Danny can drop in and Ross is different again. I feel we have a group where we can make changes and not make a huge difference to the quality of the team.”
Fenlon has no doubts Kuqi will prove his worth, having amassed a huge amount of experience while playing for the likes of Sheiffield Wednesday, Fulham, Ipswich Town, Crystal Palace, Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United over the years. He said: “It’s not set in stone that any player will play but Shefki hasn’t come up here just to sit on the bench.”
Meanwhile, Fenlon has urged his players to build on their derby-day draw and win against St Mirren tomorrow. He said: “We said after the Hearts game it was important we backed it up with a peformance and result in Paisley and we did that, so it is now a case of moving on to the next one and getting the level of performance that is acceptable at this club.”
Hibs kid Sam Stanton stepped off the bench to score the winner as Scotland’s Under-19 side won 2-1 in Norway last night.