Hibs turn to youngsters after day of transfer drama ahead of hugely important Aberdeen clash
Lee Johnson had not long wrapped up his pre-match press conference ahead of Hibs’ cinch Premiership meeting with Aberdeen, in which he discussed the imminent transfer exits of Kevin Nisbet and Ryan Porteous, when the bombshell dropped.
Quizzed over the impending departure of two of the club’s key players, Johnson said: “It’s a difficult one to speak on because as of this moment in time I don’t have all the detail and information, whether the medical has been passed, discussions, all those things come into it. Would I rather have both those players in the squad than not in the squad, fully switched on for the the game? Of course. Is that reality? I’m not so sure.”
Hibs had accepted offers for both players – from Millwall for Nisbet and Watford Porteous – they had travelled to England to discuss personal terms and undergo medicals, and the likelihood was that neither would be available on Saturday.
“They’re not in the building, obviously bids have come in and now they are talking to them. They are not here and therefore I can’t give an answer as to whether they are available or not,” Johnson explained.
Ninety minutes later, Nisbet’s move to the Den was off. “Kevin has taken time to consider this opportunity but remains unsure about making the move at this time. He’s happy to focus on Hibs for the time being,” a statement from his representatives read. Elsewhere, Watford boss Slaven Bilić confirmed that Porteous was a ‘done deal’ and a few hours later, at 5pm, it was confirmed by both clubs.
It remains to be seen if Nisbet features in the matchday squad, the striker having missed training on Friday, but even having him in the squad to bring off the bench could be vital in the race for three points – and given his seven goals in as many games since returning from his lengthy injury lay-off, how priceless it could be to potentially have him available, even if he still leaves before the deadline.
Johnson felt there was an ‘80-20 chance against’ of bringing in any new recruits before the match, but remains confident of ‘at least a couple’ arriving before midnight on Tuesday. Defenders would appear to be the priority area given Rocky Bushiri’s injury and the club was in talks with Oxford United over a move for Stuart Findlay while Sunderland’s Bailey Wright also remains a target.
But leaving aside the sideshow of Nisbet’s on-and-off move, the departure of Porteous, and even back-up ‘keeper Ryan Schofield being recalled by parent club Huddersfield, Hibs have an important league match against an Aberdeen side not without their own problems. Manager Jim Goodwin is in dire need of a win after Monday night’s Scottish Cup exit at the hands of West of Scotland side Darvel and Wednesday night’s stern statement from chairman Dave Cormack that amounted to a warning of ‘beat Hibs or else’.
Against a background of transfer activity it has almost slipped by unnoticed that Hibs are really down to the bare bones in terms of available players. Nine have already left the club either permanently or temporarily this month, five are sidelined through injury, and Nisbet’s status is unclear.
Johnson was present on the sidelines as a youthful Hibs development side – basically the club’s under-19s, as they continue preparations for next month’s UEFA Youth League play-off against Borussia Dortmund – turned over an experienced Livingston side in the Reserve Cup, with Ethan Laidlaw and Josh O’Connor both on target in a 3-1 win, and a handful of the club’s youngsters could get a chance to shine this weekend.
"There’ll be five, potentially six academy-based players on the bench, in the squad, or in the team on Saturday. I think that’s massive in terms of the project and in terms of the work the academy has done. It shows the pathway,” Johnson explained. “Josh O’Connor is a good example of someone who will certainly be on the bench at least, and I think it’s a nice story – his father used to play for the club as a centre-forward as well and that’s where these opportunities come.
“Young players have always got the opportunity to impress. Walking past the manager in the corridor and showing politeness, things like that; how are they in front of the media, how they are when they play against a player with a couple of hundred league games under their belt like Livingston had. There are always opportunities.”
Hibs may be just four points off fourth in the table but they remain in a precarious position, a run of ten defeats in 14 preventing the club from competing for third with rivals Hearts 11 points clear in the ‘best of the rest’ berth. Losing Porteous and potentially Nisbet could make the task of finishing the season strongly even more daunting and while the manager has already accepted that the campaign hasn’t gone according to plan, he doggedly insists that better is still to come.
"It’s turned into a bit of a transitional season that nobody wanted but at the same time the plan is clear: reduce the quantity, increase the quality, and bring young players through,” Johnson says, with the hint of a world-weary sigh.
"All I can promise you is that I'm doing a really honest job for the football club. I'm making every decision like I'm going to be here forever, knowing I could be gone tomorrow. Of course I'm frustrated. Do you not think I wanted to come in and smash it from day one, and end up challenging the Old Firm? Of course I did.
"That was the dreamer in me, but the realist in me knows that there is a lot to do at this football club and that's what I'm fighting to do. I hope people appreciate that and I hope the naysayers inevitably turn positive when we do get it right."