It is no coincidence that Hibs have rediscovered their air of authority in the Championship title race at a time when their most reliable source of goals has returned to the team.
Jason Cummings’ double at Falkirk on the opening day of the season kicked off the Easter Road side’s latest bid for the title and he went on to score in each of their opening six league matches, laying the foundations for what was threatening to become a procession towards the Premiership.
After three autumn starts without a goal – in draws against Queen of the South, Dundee United and Raith Rovers – Cummings found himself, harshly in the view of many supporters, out of the starting line-up for the next two months. Remarkably, he saw only 69 minutes of action as a substitute between the goalless draw away to Raith on October 15 and the 4-0 home win over Dumbarton on December 10, which goes a long way to explaining a much-documented three-month goal drought between September 17 and December 17.
Since returning to prominence last month, Cummings has emphatically dispelled any doubts about his value to Hibs with four goals in as many outings. His three goals in the last two games – victories over Falkirk and Dundee United – went a long way to helping his hitherto stuttering team re-establish themselves as clear title favourites. The fact he remains the Championship’s top scorer – and has seven more league goals than Martin Boyle, Hibs’ second top scorer – despite starting only 13 of his team’s 20 matches, underlines the value of the burgeoning 21-year-old.
Former Hibs striker Derek Riordan is in no doubt that Cummings must continue to lead the attack as his old club bid to secure promotion.
“I thought it was a bit strange that Cummy was dropped,” he told the Evening News. “In my eyes, you can’t drop your top goalscorer. You need him in your team because he gets you goals. He showed that against Dundee United the other night. Even if he’s not doing much in a game, he still seems to pop up with a goal. I’m a Hibs fan and I’d have Cummy up front before any of the others. You can’t leave him out the team.”
Riordan is Hibs’ most prolific striker of the last 30 years, with 104 goals over two spells with the club. Cummings is already halfway to the 33-year-old’s tally, with 55 to his name in just three years in Hibs’ first team, albeit the majority of those goals have come in Scotland’s second tier. Despite being more than a decade apart in age, these two goal-grabbing Edinburgh boys struck up a rapport when Riordan returned to his old club to utilise training facilities at East Mains under Alan Stubbs last season.
“He’s a nice lad,” said Riordan. “He’s a lively lad, who likes a laugh. We did a lot of shooting sessions together when I was in there last season and we used to have scoring competitions with each other. He’s more of an out-and-out striker than I am. I preferred to pull out to the left, whereas he’s a bit more of a poacher. He always seems to pop up and get the goals at the right time.”
Cummings’ future has been the subject of much speculation over the past year or so and, even though he eventually signed a new four-year contract last summer, he continues to attract attention from vultures down south eager to land the hottest young striker in Scotland. Peterborough United failed with a seven-figure offer last August and, in the last few days, English Championship side QPR have been linked. Cummings, however, is fully focused on firing Hibs to the Premiership and is content to bide his time before trying his luck elsewhere. Riordan, who knows from experience how hard it can be to kick on after leaving Hibs, believes he is right to remain with the Edinburgh club for the time being.
“I think he’ll get a good move eventually as long as he stays in the team and keeps scoring,” said Riordan. “He’s only 21, so there’s no rush. I was 23 when I left [for Celtic] and, even if he waits until that age, he should still have another ten years playing at a good level. I think another year or so at Hibs would do him good. If Hibs go up this year, I think he should have a season in the Premiership and see how that goes, then maybe look to move on. That’s down to him obviously. I really hope he does well because I like him.”
Comparing Cummings with prolific predecessors like Riordan, Garry O’Connor, Steven Fletcher and Leigh Griffiths is a tricky business given that the current Hibs striker has not been playing in the top flight, but Riordan believes the former Hutchison Vale kid’s natural instinct in front of goal should be enough to allow him to prosper at a higher level.
“It’s hard to judge exactly what he’s capable of because he’s been playing in the Championship, but you can only score against what’s in front of you and he’s been doing that regularly for Hibs,” said Riordan. “He’s still been chipping in with goals against the likes of Hearts, Rangers and Dundee United, so he certainly knows where the net is. He reminds me a wee bit of Stokesy [Anthony Stokes, whom Riordan played alongside in 2009/10] because there would be times when he didn’t seem like he was in the game and then he’d pop up with a goal. You need someone like that in your team.”
Cummings declared in the aftermath of his double against United that he aimed to beat last season’s tally of 25 goals for the season. He is currently on 12, with 16 league matches to go and a favourable Scottish Cup starter against Junior side Bonnyrigg Rose on Saturday week. Riordan believes the striker, boosted by his return to the starting line-up, could achieve his objective over the remainder of campaign. “When I was playing, I used to target ten before Christmas and then go for 20 by the end of the season,” said Riordan. “Cummy’s playing in the Championship so, if he can get himself a few doubles, he might have a chance of getting 25 by the end of the season. I think that period out of the team will probably have inspired him to push on and come back stronger. He was never likely to go into his shell because he’s a confident lad, and he’s been scoring since he came back in.”
Riordan, who is still looking for a way back into football since leaving York City at the end of last season, knows the potential pitfalls of being a recognisable Hibs striker in Edinburgh after getting embroiled in a few scrapes in his home city over the course of his career. Cummings found himself courting some negative off-field publicity in his early days in the first team, but has generally steered clear of trouble and is adapting well to life in the limelight.
“Edinburgh’s not the biggest of cities, so you’re going to get noticed if you’re one of the big players doing well at a club like Hibs,” said Riordan. “You’re always going to get a bit more stick than other players. Everybody’s different in terms of how they deal with it. Cummy’s alright like that. He’s grown up in Edinburgh, so he knows what it’s like. Some people probably won’t like him because of the way he comes across, but he’s actually a really nice lad.”