Ben Kensell big interview: Hibs chief on Jack Ross exit, hiring Shaun Maloney, and Martin Boyle transfer
It’s been an eventful six months for those of a green and white persuasion and with the club still in transition there is plenty to talk about and on which to reflect.
"I'm quite a glass-half-full person so I don't see it as difficult, I see it as more kind of challenging. It's been a pleasure to be at the club during these periods, but it's never nice with the amount of changes we’ve had,” Kensell says when asked about his time so far at Easter Road.
Ross decision and praise for Gray
As a self-confessed football fan, Kensell kicks every ball and experiences the same highs and lows as the supporters – “Even as chief exec, I want to win every game so I feel the pain when we lose, especially at home” – so the decision to relieve Ross of his duties in mid-December was not one he took lightly, especially after the 45-year-old had led Hibs to a stunning semi-final victory over Rangers at the national stadium to set up a Premier Sports Cup final date with Celtic.
"I don't think there's ever a right time to make a change, because there will always be opinions around whether someone should be given the final or not, which is what was obviously the main point that was raised,” Kensell continues.
"I just felt that our league performances weren't where we wanted them to be for the club, so we decided to make the change.
"We thanked Jack and his team for their services and for what they have done, which has been really, really significant for the club, and decided to move on as quickly as we possibly could, getting a process in place that we knew would mean, potentially, bringing a slightly different direction to the club.
"I think it's probably fair to say that I had a really good working relationship with Jack and his team, and I was also really proud of how David Gray and Eddie May took the team during that interim period.”
Pursuit of Maloney
Maloney was lured away from his role as Belgium assistant boss and unveiled on December 20, barely 24 hours after Hibs had lost the League Cup final despite a valiant effort. The decision to replace a seasoned manager in Ross with a relative rookie signalled the start of a rebuilding effort at the club which has stretched far beyond the first team.
"The appointment of Shaun after what was quite a robust process away from Edinburgh, was at times quite tricky with Covid still being upon us – it’s the first time I've ever had to conduct a process sometimes virtually, sometimes in person,” Kensell recalls when asked about the club’s efforts to land Roberto Martinez’s trusted lieutenant.
"So that threw a few challenges up, but we ended up with the right candidate, and Shaun is going to lead this club, hopefully, to really good things.
"I knew about him before the process, but you never really think about it, you just know about a lot of managers that have done good things, have good, strong coaching credentials, or are identified as good young prospects who are coming into the game and who want opportunities.
"It was more a case of me just understanding who was out there but more importantly, the type of coach who had certain attributes, who we believed wanted to move the club forward, and address a certain playing style.”
A club in transition
Maloney has been in post for just short of two months and Kensell points out that the club is going through a significant transition on and off the park.
"I want us to be successful, Shaun wants us to be successful, but we have to bear in mind that he has not been in two months yet and there's been a huge amount of change at the club,” the Hibs chief adds.
“We've appointed a new manager with quite a different playing philosophy: possession-based, quite attack-minded, a different formation, and players have to adapt to that.
"The early winter break didn't help us from a momentum perspective. We then had an intense period of bringing in a lot of players and seeing a lot of players leave the club.
"What I'd really like to see now is just a period of stability and growth, and let's be judged on the results over that period of time.”
Moving on from Boyle
One player who had a big say in Maloney’s first two results was Boyle, who left the club for a life-changing move to the Middle East. Kensell is hopeful of seeing the winger back at Hibs one day but insists the club must move on in the meantime.
"We lost a good player, but it probably dragged on for a bit too long,” he sighs. “It was a distraction for everyone.
"Martin has a lot of respect for the fans and the club but in the end, you can't deny a player who has done so well for this football club the opportunity to change their life with a move like that.
"We wish him the best out there – he's started well, but hopefully he comes back to Hibs because we never wanted to let him go. He knows that.
"It was quite disruptive amongst the squad, but also quite disruptive in general for Shaun's plans and for our plans. I'm not exaggerating but I think it would have been one of the best windows this club has had, if we could have retained Martin's services.
“But ultimately, we have to move on and ensure that Shaun has the tools available to him; players to do the job that we want them to do.”