Hibs: What Murray Johnson loan and Kevin Dąbrowski contract expiry mean for goalkeeping options
It’s a wonderfully evocative description of the sole singular position in a football XI. We talk about strike partnerships, midfield duos, defensive pairings. But apart from the training ground the role of goalie is a lonely one; largely invisible until you pull off a stunning save or chuck one in. Goalkeeping errors are nearly always costly, much more so than a mistake from an outfield player – and it was former Rangers manager Graeme Souness who once claimed that a team cannot win any trophies without a top goalkeeper.
They are the base of the spine of any team. A weak goalkeeper will have a knock-on effect on the defence, which then runs through the rest of the team. But in the same way that teams targeting success require a leading operator between the sticks, they also need competent and reliable, and perhaps most crucially, experienced back-up.
Hibs are in the position of potentially losing three goalkeepers this summer – two permanently, and one on a more temporary basis. A couple of seasons ago, when Ofir Marciano was leaving, Matt Macey had arrived during the winter transfer window and took over the gloves when the popular Israeli custodian moved on. Last year David Marshall’s services were all but secured before Lee Johnson arrived, with the incoming manager just having to rubber-stamp the paperwork. This summer, however, more members need admitting to the Easter Road side’s goalkeepers’ union.
One of Brian McDermott’s first tasks as director of football will be to help identify at least one new goalkeeper, if not two. Confirmation of Murray Johnson’s season-long loan contract with Queen of the South next term came hot on the heels of Kevin Dąbrowski’s temporary stint at Palmerston in the second half of last season. With Hibs all but confirming the Pole’s time at the club had come to an end when they announced his loan deal in January, and Johnson primed for regular SPFL gametime next term away from the Capital, Marshall is looking increasingly isolated at Easter Road. Development squad goalie Tom Carter’s contract is also up in the summer and with no talk of extending his stay, he also looks likely to leave during the close season.
Under-18s ‘keeper Freddie Owens has got the nod for the last two development squad matches but despite being well regarded he is almost certainly too inexperienced to step up to the first-team pool, even as third choice should Hibs qualify for Europe for which they need to register three goalkeepers. In the Europa Conference League qualifiers in the summer of 2021, Macey was the starting goalkeeper with Dąbrowski and coach Craig Samson named as the back-up shot-stoppers. As things stand Hibs have in Marshall a recognised first choice between the sticks, but a back-up goalkeeper will certainly need to be brought in, as well as potentially one for the development squad.
Maksymilian Boruc has already completed a trial spell at East Mains, but there has so far been little indication from the club that the Polish gloveman may present an option for the future. Ryan Schofield, who spent the first half of the season at Hibs on loan from Huddersfield Town following injury to Dąbrowski, is out of contract in the summer – the 23-year-old spent the remainder of the campaign on loan at Crawley Town but played just twice, and he would be a figure known to both goalkeeping coach Stuart Garden and manager Lee Johnson, as well as being a welcome (re)addition to the squad.
Ultimately any incomer has to be in a position to push and challenge Marshall, able to deputise in the event of injury, add something to the dressing room, and possibly feature in Viaplay Cup matches if Johnson feels that playing a full Premiership season plus European fixtures and two domestic cup competitions might be asking too much of his now 38-year-old goalie.
In some ways playing back-up is a harder, more complex role than first-choice goalkeeper. The second-in-command knows their position in the pecking order but has to be switched on constantly in case they are called into action without warning – or find themselves making their debut in a local derby match as Dąbrowski did back in February last year.
McDermott is big on character. "I look at the person first. When I recruit, I say ‘I need to know what the person is like’,” he said, following his appointment as director of football earlier this month.
"If the character of a person isn’t what the football club is looking for, then I wouldn’t go there – even if the ability is top-level.If the character is not there I wouldn’t touch that situation. It is so important to get the right characters in the dressing room. With the right characters who are all going in the same direction, it is amazing what you can do.”
McDermott’s contacts in the game combined with Johnson’s links with English football, Adam Owen’s knowledge of several overseas leagues, and a recruitment department ready to analyse possible signings from across the globe may mean even greater scope for new additions.
It should mean replacing hopeful punts with more established individuals, or the difference between a loanee with Champions League experience and one with limited exposure beyond the Premier League youth ranks.
The director of football position was created by Hibs partly to limit mistakes acknowledged by the club. Bringing in an able deputy for Marshall is no easy task but with club chiefs having already held their hands up over previous errors in recruitment, supporters should feel safe in the knowledge that whoever passes the rigorous testing should be more than capable of performing an historically challenging role.