Comment: Hibs well placed to deal with Jason Cummings' exit
As far as Neil Lennon is concerned, the apparent imminent departure of striker Jason Cummings to Nottingham Forest probably changes little.
The Hibs boss was already planning to strengthen his strikeforce following the departures at the end of the season of veteran hitman Grant Holt and James Keatings, off to Dundee United in search of more regular first-team football.
A first move was made immediately after United lost their Premiership play-off final with Hamilton, Tannadice forward Simon Murray agreeing a two-year deal with the Easter Road club.
Now, though, Lennon has to somehow replace a player who has been Hibs’ top scorer in each of the past three seasons, 69 in 133 appearances a more than respectable return for any centre forward far less someone who today is still only 21 years of age.
It would, however, be naive of anyone to think Nottingham Forest’s bid to clinch a deal reputed to run to seven figures has caught Lennon or chief executive Leeann Dempster by surprise.
Lennon has long acknowledged that any player has his price, while Cummings himself has made no secret of the fact he wants to test himself at a higher level.
Cummings’ importance to the Capital club was underlined this time last year when Peterborough United tabled an offer which, while said to be somewhat exaggerated at £1.7 million, was still regarded as “decent”, a bid which was turned down as Hibs’ entire focus, after two seasons in the Championship, was trained only on clinching promotion.
Hibs worked hard to retain his services, Lennon’s assessment as he became manager was that a lack of goals had been a hindrance in the previous season’s league campaign.
In fact, Lennon went as far as inviting Cummings to join him in Paris – where he was working for the BBC at the European Championships with the likes of Alan Shearer and Rio Ferdinand – to persuade him to stay.
A four-year contract was agreed but, again, few would believe Cummings would see out every last minute of that deal, one which provided him with security for his immediate future – and undoubtedly a handsome rise in his salary – while protecting the club’s own position in that it would give them a strong hand when it came to the inevitable offers that would come.
Cummings himself hinted that moment may have arrived when he said on winning promotion that “my job at Hibs is done a wee bit with what I wanted to do”.
A decade ago, Hibs faced a similar situation, Scott Brown’s time at Easter Road coming to an end only for the midfielder to be talked into staying to help win the CIS Insurance Cup and so become a club hero with the understanding that should something which appealed to both parties arise then the club wouldn’t stand in his way.
Brown, of course, left for a record £4.5m fee, the sort of figure unheard of today in Scottish football, but a seven-figure sum for Cummings, considering that only four years ago he was on the soccer scrapheap, off-loaded by Hearts and working as a gardener, would represent great business.
Cummings has, of course, made considerable progress since then although he is far from the finished article, Lennon himself noting at one point during a season in which the player found himself sidelined that, if he wasn’t scoring, he wasn’t contributing too much to the game.
Goals, though, are what football is all about and top-class strikers are both difficult and expensive to find and, while Cummings has yet to score in the top flight, Forest boss Mark Warburton knows him well with the player a regular scorer against his Rangers side and in cup games where Hibs took on Scotland’s Premiership sides.
Forest escaped relegation from the English Championship only on goal difference last season and Warburton is obviously hoping Cummings can help ensure that scenario doesn’t arise again.
Provided Cummings passes his medical and decides Nottingham is for him, it does leave Hibs with the unenviable task of replacing him, Lennon having only Murray, Brian Graham – who wasn’t totally convincing last season – and teenager Oli Shaw, a kid regarded with plenty of potential but perhaps a little way short of the first team at present, currently on the books.
The obvious target, at least in the eyes of the Hibs support, would be former Easter Road striker Anthony Stokes but the chances of him returning for a third time appear to be between slim and none as he still has two years of his contract to run at Blackburn Rovers who, despite being relegated to the English League One, are said to be unwilling to “pay him off”.
In that scenario, a hefty fee would probably be required while Stokes’ personal terms would almost certainly be beyond the Easter Road purse.
Ross County’s Liam Boyce, scorer of 65 goals in the past three seasons, is another name that will be mentioned although, again, you’d expect the Dingwall club to demand a sizeable cheque if they were willing to sell.
Hibs would face competition if that were to be the case with Burton Albion credited with an interest while Motherwell’s Louis Moult would also meet with the approval of many supporters although others are said to be casting an eye in his direction which would inevitably lead to a bidding war.
Lennon, though, has the contacts, as does his head of player identification and recruitment Graeme Mathie, to cast the net much wider, so don’t be surprised if Hibs pull of a surprise or two.
There’s little doubt Lennon would be given a sizeable percentage of any fee for Cummings to invest in his squad, one which looks very strong at the back and more than decent in midfield. It would give him some scope to fulfil his aim of strengthening considerably up front. There again, he doesn’t necessarily have to replace one striker capable of scoring 25 goals a season with another although, obviously, no-one would turn up their noses if he could.
Lennon has already sought to add more goals from midfield with the arrival of Danny Swanson and, if he can repeat the 15 he notched for St Johnstone last season then another hitman – or two – capable of claiming a further 15 would more than suffice.
And the one thing he has in his favour if Cummings does go in the next week, is that it gives him plenty of time to scour the market rather than be left scrabbling around only days before the transfer deadline.