Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom’s priority must now be to find right strikeforce
Of the various departments of the Hibs squad, the attack appears in the most pressing need of summer replenishment.
As things stand, Oil Shaw and Florian Kamberi are the only bona fide strikers currently due to check in at East Mains for pre-season in three weeks’ time. The former hasn’t started a game since Paul Heckingbottom took over in February, while the latter spent most of the closing few months of the season on the left wing.
Given that Hibs scored only four goals in their closing seven league matches (three of which came against Hearts), bolstering the strikeforce must be high on the manager’s priority list following yesterday’s recruitment of Barnsley defender Adam Jackson. Marc McNulty, who scored eight goals during his recent spell on loan from Reading, is a primary target and is eager to return. It remains to be seen, however if, and when a deal can be struck between the two clubs, with Reading keen to recoup some of the £1 million they paid Coventry City for the recently-capped Scotland striker. Another loan at Hibs could become a possibility although there is nothing imminent in this regard. There is every chance that Hibs will have to play a waiting game if they are to land McNulty for next season.
Even if they are able to bring the former Livingston forward back to the Capital, it would be a surprise if Heckingbottom didn’t attempt to add at least one or two other attackers to the mix in order to ensure this area of the team is at the required standard for a tilt at returning to the top four. Hibs kicked off their first season back in the Premiership with four strikers: Anthony Stokes, Simon Murray, Shaw and Deivydas Matulevicius. They began last term with the quartet of Shaw, Kamberi, Jamie Maclaren and Lewis Allan. The departure of Allan this summer leaves 19-year-old attacker Jamie Gullan, who made 14 appearances on loan at Raith Rovers in the closing months of the campaign, as a contender to step up and fill a void as one of the main first-team strikers. It would be a major gamble, however, to kick off the new season with just Shaw, Kamberi, McNulty and the unproven Gullan in attack, especially given the lack of goals from Shaw and Kamberi in recent months.
There is a valid argument that Martin Boyle, who has hitherto been unavailable to Heckingbottom due to long-term injury, could be used as a striker since he has operated there so often in his career, but the Australia internationalist has generally been at his most dangerous on the right flank, where his pace and thrust allows him to terrorise full-backs and drive the team forward in a way they were unable to do in his absence in the closing months of the campaign. Keeping Boyle on the wing should also help ensure the likes of Kamberi, Shaw and any other new strikers are afforded a higher quality of service than was the case for much of last season. For long periods of last term, Kamberi, Maclaren, Shaw and McNulty were feeding off scraps at the top end of the pitch, with the exodus of John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan taking a toll on the team’s ability to dominate matches and create a regular flow of chances.
The return of playmaker Allan from Celtic should also help in this regard, after the likes of Ryan Gauld, Thomas Agyepong and Emerson Hyndman generally struggled, for one reason or another, to make any sustained impact in the creative department. The shortage of quality delivery into the danger area clearly left Kamberi exasperated at times over the past season, and the Swiss was unable to enjoy the same impact he had when he first arrived on loan from Grasshoppers. After earning himself a permanent move to Edinburgh by scoring nine goals during that swashbuckling four-month spell in the second half of the 2017/18 campaign, Kamberi’s return of 13 goals over the past year, a tally which included a Europa League hat-trick against Faroese part-timers NSI Runavik last July, was pretty underwhelming.
In addition to the reduction in quality service, Kamberi wasn’t helped by a deteriorating relationship with previous manager Neil Lennon, who appeared to be scapegoating he and Maclaren for poor results, while he has never looked particularly comfortable on the left wing under Heckingbottom. Having said that, Kamberi must also take some responsibility for the fact both his finishing and his first touch weren’t as sharp as they could have been when opportunities did arise. If he is to get himself back on track and re-establish himself as one of the main strikers at Hibs under Heckingbottom, Kamberi will surely have to signal his intent early in the season. In that regard, he must return for pre-season in purposeful mood and make sure he is in the starting line-up for the Betfred Cup group matches against lower-league sides Alloa Athletic, Arbroath, Elgin City and Stirling Albion, when there will surely be goals to be had for any hungry Hibs strikers. If he can fill his boots in those matches, it will go some way to banishing the perception, floated among some Hibs supporters, that Kamberi was merely a half-season wonder.
Shaw is in a similar boat to his fellow striker in the sense that it is currently unclear whether he will be a prominent member of Heckingbottom’s attack going forward. The 20-year-old has scored 12 first-team goals for Hibs over the past two seasons but is yet to properly ignite the way Jason Cummings, the last striker to successfully emerge from Hibs’ youth ranks, did. His last goals came in back-to-back matches against St Mirren and Aberdeen just before Heckingbottom arrived, but he has only been used as a substitute under the Yorkshireman. If he is to become a key man in the upcoming season, Shaw – described in February by chief executive Leeann Dempster as one of the best young players in Europe – will probably have to hit the ground running in the Betfred Cup.
Shaw has been the only omnipresent first-team striker at Hibs throughout the past two seasons, highlighting the turnover of players in that area of the team. Given the uncertainty over McNulty’s future and the question marks over both Shaw and Kamberi, there is every chance the make-up of the Easter Road attack will be subject to a further wave of change by the time the summer transfer window closes in three months’ time.