Hibs boss Neil Lennon has refused to make any predictions as to where he sees his team finishing the season – because he could never have envisaged going into the winter break sitting eighth in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
But while confident of setting about improving that position after the winter break, Lennon admitted that losing another high-profile player in Efe Ambrose has made that task all the harder.
Ambrose decided to invoke a clause in his contract allowing him to leave the Edinburgh club this month, turning down a three-year deal on improved terms, following midfielders John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch who left in the summer.
Admitting it was “disappointing” to have lost the Nigerian internationalist after failing to agree financial terms, Lennon conceded he faced a challenge in strengthening his squad over the course of the next few weeks.
There was, he insisted, a real need to bring fresh faces to the club, describing the current situation as “really undercooked”, his problems exacerbated by the fact Martin Boyle could be facing surgery which could potentially bring his season to an end after the speedy winger suffered a serious knee injury while on international duty with Australia.
Lennon said: “We want to get some bodies in. Obviously, it’s an ideal opportunity to do that with the window being open. We have lost Efe and he is a big loss to us. He was probably our best player in the first half of the season. We have got a lot of work to do.”
Lennon admitted it could be demoralising as a manager to see your best players leave but reflected on the transfer business conducted this time last year which resulted in Hibs pushing for second place behind Celtic, until the penultimate day of the season.
Recalling that period when Flo Kamberi, Jamie Maclaren and Scott Allan were recruited, he said: “If you look at two in particular: McGinn, there’s an inevitability about that but it’s a quality player, and now Ambrose, again a quality player.
“So replacing them is difficult. And the expectation from last year was pretty high for us all. We’ve not been able to reach those heights probably because of the quality we’ve lost. I wouldn’t say we have tough work in front of us but we’ve got a challenge in front of us.
“We’ve got some catching up to do on the top six and we need to find more consistency, but that will come hopefully with the quality of player we bring in.
“Of course it doesn’t help when you are losing your best players. You’re only as good as your players, any manager will tell you that and if they don’t then they’re lying.
“What makes you a good manager is good players. That’s why all the top players go to the top clubs and they have the top managers. It’s an old adage and it might sound lazy but it’s the truth. But you can always find little nuggets here and there, we had a good window this time last year. It’s not always the case but we’re hoping for more of the same.”
Former Dundee United midfielder Ryan Gauld is expected to join Lennon’s squad at their winter training camp in Dubai within the next 48 hours, completing a loan move until the end of the season from Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon.
However, other than to reveal Gauld was a player he had admired when he was playing at Tannadice, Lennon declined to comment further until the deal was completed, while insisting that there were “gems” to be uncovered.
He said: “I don’t think it’s hard. There is a bit of work involved but if you see natural talent you shouldn’t really miss it. Getting Ambrose from Celtic was a no-brainer for me, an absolute no-brainer.
“And for him to want to come from Celtic to us meant it was just about getting it done. The guy is class. I know he’s had his critics over the years.
“When he made a mistake, he made a mistake! But for fifty thousand and seven hundred good things he did he did maybe seven or eight bad things that were really highlighted. Some of his play this season was top drawer.”
Lennon agreed Ambrose’s arrival, initially on loan from Celtic two years ago, hadn’t been universally welcomed by the Hibs support given the high profile mistakes which led to him losing his place in the Hoops team.
However, he soon won them over with his flamboyant if sometimes erratic style of play. Lennon said: “It’s a harsh environment being in Glasgow. This is a player who won the African Nations, who played in the Champions League last 16, who won championships and won cups, and the guy was an elite footballer, certainly at Scottish level.
“And I think the Hibs fans who are what Mourinho would call the “Einsteins” of the game were sort of scratching their heads at us bringing him in but by the time he left they were singing his praises about how good a player he is.”
Finding a replacement for Ambrose would appear to be high on Lennon’s list of priorities but, he revealed, at the top of it was finding another attacking player with pace, even more so given Boyle’s situation.
He said: “When you lose what we’ve lost it’s impossible to replace in one window. So we will have to do some good work in this one and try to cover the ground.
“We’re hoping to get Gauld in. Nothing’s confirmed yet but we’re hoping to get that done. We have a good young goalkeeper from Spurs [Tom Glover] and we’re having a good luck at him this week. And the top end of the pitch is the priority for me.
“With Boyle being out now for whatever length of time we’re going to need another attacking player in with pace. That’s a must because we’ve lacked pace this season with Boyle being in and out and [Brandon] Barker leaving. That injection of pace is really important for the way we want to play.
“Do I have to change the way I want to play the game? Well I don’t really want to do that. We have to go and find the right type of players that we want to use.
“Where we are at the minute we’ve identified the areas we want to improve. While they may cost a little bit more I think we are in a position where we can do that. I’m not going to say any more than that.”
Rebuilding a squad is not a new challenge for Lennon, and neither is finding the right players.
“I had it at Celtic,” he said. “They didn’t replace the players that we sold, which was one of the reasons why I left in the summer.
“It’s difficult to replace that quality. It’s not insurmountable, it’s not impossible, there are players out there and you can find players who have maybe lost their way a little bit or whatever.
“But they’ve got to want to come for the right reasons. I go back to when I first came in: Grant Holt came up here for the right reasons, it wasn’t for the money, he wanted to play. He was a huge asset for us in a very difficult Championship season and he was a big plus in getting us over the line. So there are players out there. We want them to come to play for Hibs and not just to further their career.”
Asked about his aims for the rest of the season, Lennon said: “I wouldn’t have predicted we’d be eighth in the league after the first half of the season. I’m hoping we can get a consistent run and have a good cup run as well. I’m hoping – but I’m not going to make any predictions. I would like to think we’d be an improvement on the first half.”