How Hibs can solve centre-back dilemma in the short and long-term - youth, new signings, loan recall?
Ryan Porteous on his way out, Rocky Bushiri possibly sidelined for the foreseeable, Paul Hanlon not quite 100 per cent, and Will Fish with just two starts under his belt and only one of those in his natural position.
Unless some swift business is concluded in the transfer market this week, Hibs face the very real possibility of heading into a vital cinch Premiership encounter with Aberdeen with just one fully-fit centre-back in the first-team squad – a 19-year-old on loan from Manchester United.
Given the sort of player and personality he is Hanlon would – as he has in the past – play through the pain barrier for his boyhood club if required but it shouldn’t have got to that stage for Hibs, in much the same way that they shouldn’t really have gone into any game, never mind a cup derby, with a midfield trio of a new signing, a 35-year-old left-back in Lewis Stevenson, and Josh Campbell, even allowing for injuries and suspension.
Here’s a look at the options on the table for Hibs….
Sign some players
Hibs have been linked with Bailey Wright, a player whom Lee Johnson signed for Bristol City and later had in his squad at Sunderland. The Australian internationalist is still with the Black Cats but isn’t a regular starter and with Johnson keen to add leadership to his backline, the 30-year-old would fit the bill.
But Hibs arguably need another centre-back, and depending on the outcome of the injury suffered by Rocky Bushiri at the end of Sunday’s match, could even benefit from another, especially if Ryan Porteous moves on. Loan deals might make this easier, as might Johnson’s knowledge of the English leagues.
Re-introduce Darren McGregor
The veteran centre-back has been an unused sub 13 times this season, most recently in early November for the 2-0 defeat by Ross County. He has played more games for the development squad and hasn’t been involved in first-team training so it would appear unlikely that the 37-year-old will be return to the first-team squad.
However, he would certainly provide the leadership that Johnson craves and even if he isn’t deemed the answer on the park, his presence in the dressing room might make a difference.
Hang on to Porteous
Potentially unlikely, and would mean Hibs missing out on a transfer fee, but keeping Porteous at the club until the summer would limit the number of incoming centre-backs during a tricky month to make signings, and would allow Hibs to spend the remainder of the season scouting suitable replacements to sign in the summer. But it’s hard to see this saga heading in the opposite direction at this late stage.
Opt for a makeshift defence
In the current Hibs squad, both Chris Cadden and Lewis Stevenson have operated as auxiliary centre-backs, while Josh Campbell has played in just about every other position apart from centre-back so worst-case scenario, Johnson will be able to cobble together a makeshift backline. However, that would likely require a rethink in other parts of the pitch and with the midfield not teeming with availability, and a shortage in other positions, it would surely create more problems than it would actually solve.
Recall Kyle McClelland from his loan
Signed by Hibs in the summer after he left Rangers, McClelland joined Cove Rangers on loan in September but an ankle injury has limited him to just six cinch Championship appearances. Hibs have a recall clause as part of the arrangement but given his limited gametime, it would appear wiser to let him see out the season at the Balmoral Stadium and get further first-team experience.
Bump up the under-19s
Jacob Blaney got minutes in the League Cup group stages while Kanayo Megwa has been named in first-team squads since the turn of the year, while Murray Aiken, Ethan Laidlaw, and Oscar MacIntyre have all made the senior team but despite Johnson’s insistence that he wants to bring more youngsters through, none of the club’s under-19s have yet made it onto the park in a league fixture and it’s unlikely that Johnson will perform a U-turn.
There is an argument that Hibs have nothing to lose by pitching them in but there is a counter-claim that slotting youngsters into an underperforming team with an increasingly disillusioned fanbase will do more harm than good. Johnson may want nothing more than to give them a chance – but Hibs also have a duty of care to these players at the very start of their careers.
Bring in a free agent
Scouring the free-agent market would surely provide Hibs with some short-term cover but given Johnson’s preference for players who can hit the ground running, he may be limited. Wages come into play, as do contract lengths and in some cases work permits and international clearance.
Hibs can’t afford to play another waiting game like they did in the summer for Élie Youan and Marijan Čabraja – they need players who are ready to go and ideally won’t need time to get up to speed.
The best plan of action?
At the time of writing, Fish and Hanlon look like being the likely starting centre-backs, assuming Porteous departs before the weekend. That doesn’t leave much in the way of back-up but as mentioned, there are stop-gap alternatives such as sticking McGregor on the bench or calling on the youngsters.
And if Hanlon doesn’t make it, stick the youngsters in. The fans have been crying out for them to get a chance, Johnson is keen to bring them through, and it would probably get some supporters back onside if they were given a chance, given Hibs’ history of bringing players through from the youth ranks to the first team. In two weeks Hibs Under-19s will face a Borussia Dortmund team in the UEFA Youth League at Easter Road, and senior experience prior would surely only be a good thing.