How Hibs have built on existing foundations to take club to next level under Ron Gordon and Ben Kensell
Ahead of Hibs’ return to the Scottish Premiership in the summer of 2017, club chiefs drew up a blueprint called Hibernian DNA.
The document covered, among other topics, recruitment and development. Former Head of Football Operations George Craig and then recruitment chief Graeme Mathie spent time at England’s St George’s Park base as part of their work overhauling the Capital club’s strategy behind the scenes.
Hibernian DNA put an emphasis on Easter Road becoming the home for young Scottish talent and casting the net wider in terms of recruitment but it is arguably only recently – really since the arrival of Ron Gordon and Ben Kensell – that the club has gone all out in both fields.
Unsurprisingly there has been more focus on young Scottish talent – think Josh Doig, Ewan Henderson, Kyle Magennis, Dan Mackay, Ryan Porteous, and Dylan Tait – but there have been a fair few signings brought in from abroad as well, going back as far as the summer of 2017 when Deivydas Matulevicius and Vykintas Slivka arrived.
The likes of Florian Kamberi, Jamie Maclaren, Melker Hallberg, Slivka, and Stéphane Oméonga could be measured on a scale from fairly to very successful but there were a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them overseas arrivals that failed to set the heather alight too.
Under the new regime there appears to be more focus on quality rather than quantity.
Shift in focus
So far this transfer window Hibs have brought in two signings from overseas. Elias Melkersen, who signed from Norwegian champions Bodø/Glimt for a significant six-figure sum on a long-term deal, and Chris Mueller, who is tied to the club until the summer of 2025 after swapping Orlando for Edinburgh.
The reception afforded to both signings has been warm and positive but both may need time to settle into Scottish football.
As with Kamberi, the acquisitions of Melkersen and Mueller could be viewed as “high risk, high reward”. Admittedly with Kamberi Hibs got both, in that his initial half-season loan spell was very impressive despite a fairly ordinary goal record before his move to the Capital, but his latter months were a bit of a bin-fire, culminating in a loan switch to Rangers and his subsequent comments about a “dream move”.
Melkersen has only just turned 19 and has made just one senior appearance for Glimt. But there are gems to be had in the Nordic leagues and the teenager was highly-rated by staff at the Aspmyra Stadion and at loan side Ranheim. He has promised goals, hard work, and “bleeding for the team” so the forward isn’t lacking in confidence.
Similarly, Mueller was eyeing a new challenge in Europe and was picked out by Ian Gordon, son of chairman Ron. Rumours that the 25-year-old has become the Easter Road side’s highest earner on an eye-watering weekly wage are well wide of the mark, however.
But neither signing has been the result of throwing a dart at a list of names pinned to the wall. Targets are carefully selected to fit the project being built at Hibs.
Hibs are also prepared to pluck talent from other Scottish clubs. John McGinn is the benchmark and being able to point to his progression from Hibs to the English Premier League and a starting slot for Scotland will surely attract other prospects, with Kyle Magennis, Kevin Nisbet, and Dylan Tait just three examples of players who could follow a similar pathway.
The Academy is...
One thing Mathie conceded during his tenure as Sporting Director was that there weren’t enough players making the jump from the club’s Academy to the first team. Indeed, from the development side that won a league and cup double in 2018 only Ryan Porteous has broken into the first team and become a regular, although Jamie Gullan and Oli Shaw did manage more than 100 combined appearances before moving on.
The current crop of under-18s offers optimism for the future. There are strong performers front to back and with new Academy chief Steve Kean tasked with re-introducing a development side to bridge the gap between 18s and first team, we could see more home-grown youngsters pushing for places in the senior squad.
For a while Hibs had a large whiteboard tucked away in a room at East Mains with a list of names on it for each position: a starter, cover, and development player. If a development player was able to step up, such as Porteous, then Hibs could funnel money towards another position that didn’t have an individual able to make the jump.
That might now have been shelved in favour of a more proactive, “make-Hibs-the-best-we-can” approach.
Gordon and Kensell have both stressed their desire to take Hibs to the next level while Shaun Maloney has said similar, and it feels like this month, we are starting to see that in action.
Building for the future
The six new signings have stated that the project being built at Hibs was part of the draw. Players already at the club have said the same, repeatedly.
They are buying into the club’s desire to move forwards on and off the pitch. The work done by Craig, Mathie et al shouldn’t be underestimated – after all, they effectively started again from scratch following relegation and rebuilt the club – but while they were what Hibs needed in the mid-2010s, the football landscape has changed dramatically since then.
Parts of the training centre have been overhauled in recent months; the stadium has been revamped, and there is a huge effort to improve the product on the park with money being spent and senior figures going to great personal lengths to convince targets their future lies at Hibs.
Gordon and Kensell haven’t had to reinvent the wheel at Easter Road but they have been able to build on the foundations left by their predecessors and start aiming for the moon.
Time will tell if results can reflect the effort but Hibs fans should, rightly, be excited for the future.