Confirmation that Jorge Claros has received his work visa and is available to make his Hibs debut on Saturday against Aberdeen means the fight for places in the club’s already-strong midfield has intensified.
The completion earlier this week of an application to clear the Honduran for selection by Pat Fenlon presents the Easter Road manager with a dilemma: whether to throw his most prestigious January signing into the fray, or to stick with the tried and tested – not to mention recently successful – combination of Lewis Stevenson and Isaiah Osbourne.
The temptation for Fenlon to plunge his new charge into action should be outweighed by a pressure to stick with a winning midfield, says Paul Kane, the former Hibs midfielder.
Kane presents his argument in favour of a Stevenson- Osbourne axis that not only shone during a six-match winless run towards the end of 2011, but has inspired Hibs to two wins in the club’s last four matches.
“They’ve been in there and won in the Scottish Cup, and taken us to the next round. Will the manager change a winning team or stick with that same formula?” said Kane.
“Lewis Stevenson and Isaiah Osbourne were two of the better performers in the team during the bad spell – they were consistent even when it wasn’t going so well.
“As a manager bringing in new faces, he wants to play the new players. Why change it if you have a winning team? He may have to wait until a bad performance before he can bring in the new players.
“He believed the players who left the club last month weren’t good enough and has brought new boys in, but he can take encouragement from the game on Saturday.”
Claros, Stevenson, Osbourne, Martin Scott and Richie Towell are all naturally adapted to a central midfield role, while Tom Soares and David Wotherspoon can also play in that position.
That septet provides Fenlon with a rich supply of talent in that area of the pitch and the players themselves with a healthy rivalry in their clamour for playing time.
“If you look at the team, the signs are encouraging and we hope that can continue into Saturday’s game,” said Kane. “The other thing it creates is competition for places.
“That’s a decision the manager will have to go into. He has players already in the team playing well and others on the sidelines looking to come in. That wasn’t always the situation prior to Saturday.”
Kane refutes suggestions that a recent influx of new players and their potential to influence wholesale changes to the Hibs first team by unseating longer-serving individuals will create an “us-against-them” split in the dressing room.
Likewise, the former Easter Road favourite, who donned the green and white between 1982 and 1990, does not believe that an increased number of players gaining fewer games will necessarily amount to unhappiness among some members of the squad. Conversely, Kane says that competition will help to breed success, and that is the primary target for everyone at Easter Road.
He explained: “If you look at the performance on Saturday [against Kilmarnock] and if you saw the celebrations at the end with the new players and those who had already been there, you definitely saw a team pulling all together.
“Most importantly, it was Hibs’ first home win for a long time. A lot of these players who have come in have played a lot of games elsewhere and have taken their chance and shown a positive performance.”
The emotional tumult and subsequent loss of form or confidence experienced by a player in the mire of a relegation battle and throughout a series of under-par performances may have been behind the curtailing of the Hibs careers of senior players Victor Palsson and Michael Hart.
The Easter Road depression may not be for the faint-hearted, as lower-than-usual home attendances in recent months may suggest, but a school of thought contains the belief that the club’s younger players, such as Paul Hanlon and his midfield team-mate Wotherspoon, may have suffered most. As Fenlon now has more options within his squad, is it time to afford such players a break?
“I don’t think so,” said Kane. “Any player wants to play in every game possible. I can understand if it’s a young kid of 16-17, but these guys are in their 20s. There are guys who have come in and gone out of the team, and hopefully these younger players can rise to the challenge.”
Against Kilmarnock last weekend, Eoin Doyle scored the game’s only goal, while fellow new arrivals Soares, Pa Kujabi and Matt Doherty also impressed.
Kane identifies the imperious display of on-loan Coventry City centre back James McPake, and McPake’s ability to inspire Hanlon to a return to somewhere near his best form, as the foundation of a positive collective performance by those in green.
“We’ve only seen one game, but on Saturday we saw a determination not seen in a while, especially from the defence. The one that impressed me the most was James McPake, and it was Hanlon’s best performance in a while. There wasn’t a header that was not won at centre half.”
McPake and Hanlon are suspended for this weekend’s visit of Aberdeen and there exists scope – however unwelcome – for Fenlon to change his team.
Whether or not he makes an unenforced change in midfield by bringing in the much-heralded Claros will act as a measure of Fenlon’s faith in his longer-serving players.