Hibs were just one step in the Kevin Nisbet journey - but striker's efforts in green and white shouldn't be overlooked
and live on Freeview channel 276
If you cast an eye over his career since he left Partick Thistle under a bit of a cloud, he has slowly but surely climbed the footballing ladder: Raith to Dunfermline to Hibs to Millwall, and breaking into the Scotland set-up along the way. Every transfer has been calculated, carefully thought out, considered. He came, he scored, he moved on, if you like. Not unusual in modern-day football.
‘Our ups and downs’
But as rumours of his impending move to the Den gathered pace on Saturday there were more than a few dismissive comments about his departure – some about his choice of destination, and some about the player himself. Nothing too vitriolic, but not the near universal mourning when Martin Boyle departed for Al-Faisaly, for instance.
There was a reason Nisbet directly addressed the fans in his departure post on social media – a photo of his goal celebration against Hearts at Tynecastle on the final day of the season. “We’ve had our ups and downs but I’d just like to stress how much I’ve valued and appreciated the Hibs fans. They’ve been amazing,” he wrote.
Was it the fact that the 2020/21 season – his first in Hibs colours – took place behind closed doors, thus preventing the fans from nurturing a relationship with the frontman? Did his decision to submit a transfer request midway through that campaign leave a semi-permanent bad taste in the mouth for some supporters? Or was it something else entirely? Football fans are famously fickle. Even the mere mention of a certain former Wolves, Tottenham Hotspur, and Atlético Madrid right-back is enough to elicit growls of disdain from Hibs fans who haven’t forgiven an ill-advised comment made in the aftermath of the 2012 Scottish Cup final.
Nisbet never kissed the badge, or thumped his chest when he scored for Hibs. Social media posts were rarely peppered with green hearts or the #GGTTH hashtag, but he did what he was paid to do – score goals. It is worth noting, however, that he more than once went out of his way for the fans. One such instance saw him gift his matchworn shirt from the 1-0 derby win in mid-April to a supporter whose father passed away during the match; on another occasion he visited a young fan in the Sick Kids’ hospital and handed over his signed shirt and the match ball from his hat-trick in the 3-2 win against Motherwell in January.
Trying to replace Nisbet
Hibs haven’t exactly been blessed with free-scoring forwards in recent years – Jason Cummings famously banged them in during the Championship years, and Christian Doidge, Boyle, and Nisbet all hit double figures during that Covid season. But of the three of those players, only Nisbet (so far) has played a key role in helping Hibs qualify for Europe twice, with Boyle injured for most of the 2022/23 campaign and Doidge out on loan, and one can only wonder how Shaun Maloney’s time at Easter Road might have panned out had he not been robbed of the striker’s services at a time the team were struggling in the final third.
Forwards are subjected to criticism at the best of times. ‘He can’t do it in big games’; ‘he’s poor in the air’; he’s too one-footed’. Not Nisbet. Of his 39 goals in green and white he scored headers, left-foot shots, right-foot shots, free kicks, penalties, and tap-ins. He managed goals in Europe and against Aberdeen, Celtic, Hearts, and Rangers. He scored in cup semi-finals. Detractors would point out that he also missed a penalty in a semi-final, and a key spot-kick against Aberdeen a few weeks ago in the race for third. But as is often the case with Hibs players – such as Élie Youan, according to Lee Johnson – if they could do it all, then they wouldn’t be at Easter Road and if it wasn’t for Nisbet’s goals since his return from injury, there’s a good chance Hibs wouldn’t have been in a position of challenging for third or fourth at that stage of the season.
Hibs will now ramp up the search for his replacement. As things stand, the only senior out-and-out centre-forwards remaining on the books in EH7 are Doidge, who is just back from a season-long loan with Kilmarnock and Elias Melkersen, who is due back from a temporary stint with Sparta Rotterdam. Mykola Kukharevych’s future is uncertain with the Ukrainian forward undergoing injury rehab down in Manchester before his expected return to parent club Troyes, Josh O’Connor is spending the season with Airdrie, and Boyle and Youan are surely going to be used on the flanks, assuming Johnson maintains his preference for a sole forward backed up by two wide men.
A difficult, goal-laden three years
In the pantheon of Hibs forwards in the eyes of the supporters, Nisbet will be nowhere near the bottom – but he might not be as close to the top as his performances should probably warrant. He may well be one of those players on whom fans look back in the future and concede that perhaps they didn’t fully appreciate his efforts in green and white at the time.
In just three years at Hibs Nisbet had to cope with the loss of his father Thomas; difficult enough in normal times but especially so with the backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic, and a serious knee injury that sidelined for ten months. “When I had a couple of setbacks earlier in my career and things weren’t going to plan, my dad never lost faith in me. He never stopped encouraging me. He just wanted me to be happy and make the most of myself,” Nisbet said.
Nisbet certainly appears to be doing his best to honour his dad’s wishes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him hitting the ground running in the Championship as he continues to climb the ladder.