Why this season will show if Florian Kamberi is the real deal
Eighteen months into his Hibs career and it is still difficult to know what to make of Florian Kamberi.
Is he an average striker who happened to have a brilliant half-season on loan at Easter Road when the stars aligned perfectly for him in 2017/18? Or is he a genuinely burgeoning centre-forward who simply had an underwhelming campaign when several factors weren’t in his favour last term?
In deciphering the answer, this season promises to be definitive for the Swiss hitman.
Even this term, just a few Betfred Cup matches in, we have already seen both sides of Kamberi. There was the one who was substituted at half-time against Alloa Athletic last Saturday after failing to make any impact. Paul Heckingbottom insisted afterwards that the decision to take him off was predominantly tactical, which was a perfectly believable claim given that the formation changed after the break, but the bottom line is that the head coach felt that removing Kamberi from the equation might help improve the situation against Championship, which, ultimately, it did.
Given the way last Saturday’s game had gone, it wouldn’t have been a great surprise if Kamberi subsequently started as a substitute against Arbroath on Tuesday. However, with only three senior strikers on his books - Oli Shaw and Christian Doidge are the others - Heckingbottom knows the importance of trying to get Kamberi operating with confidence and at his best, and benching him for matches against lower-league teams, where goals should be there to be had, is not the way to do that.
Encouragingly for Heckingbottom and the Hibs support, Kamberi has responded well to last weekend’s minor ignominy with a couple of lively goal-scoring performances against Arbroath and Elgin City. Just two minutes in against the Red Lichties, the striker timed his run well to get on the end of a Scott Allan pass and slotted clinically into the net. He then produced an even more emphatic finish to seal a 2-0 win at Elgin after being alert enough to seize on a slack passback. This impressive goal at Borough Briggs came as part of a strong display in which Kamberi generally looked sharp, focused and eager to make an impact. He also had a legitimate goal wrongly ruled out for offside.
Heckingbottom will have been pleased to see Kamberi work well alongside Doidge against Elgin, as if these two can generate a proper understanding in the coming weeks and months, there is clear potential for a fruitful partnership, with the Welshman more of a physical targetman and Kamberi arguably best suited to running in behind, profiting from the flicks and general link-up play a striker like Doidge may be able to bring to the party.
There are clear reasons, of course, which may help explain why Kamberi has been so hot and cold in a Hibs jersey. When he first arrived, he was aided by the presence of fellow striker Jamie Maclaren, with whom he initially developed a promising partnership, as well as one of the strongest midfield units Hibs have had in decades, featuring John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan. In short, there was a good supply of chances, and Kamberi duly thrived, scoring nine goals in just 14 appearances before earning himself a permanent transfer from Grasshopper Zurich as a result.
Hibs, suspecting they had landed themselves a quality striker, handed him a three-year contract last summer, but since then Kamberi has largely looked a diminished version of the player who illuminated Easter Road in his early months. In mitigation, several issues hindered him last term. Starting the season with an injury is a clear impediment to any player’s sharpness, while the loss of McGeouch, Allan and McGinn and his inability to get any regular game time alongside Maclaren, who also had injury problems, were legitimate factors in his lack of productivity. Being publicly castigated by Neil Lennon, the manager at the time, did little to help when he was misfiring and short of belief, although there were glimpses around Christmas time, notably in the home win over Celtic and the Boxing Day draw away to Rangers, of Kamberi at his bustling best. There was then another brief flurry of form in the early weeks of Heckingbottom’s reign before a move to the left wing in the closing months of the campaign left him looking ineffective and low on confidence once more.
If the 24-year-old truly is the real deal, however, ultimately there can be no excuses for another season like the last one. Kamberi is an ambitious young man. He has shown in spurts that he has the ability to be one of the standout strikers in Scotland and would probably be capable of operating at a higher - and more lucrative - level in the football foodchain. He also has the intelligence to know that, in order to accomplish this, and also get the international recognition he craves, he must produce the goods on a far more consistent basis than he has done over the past 12 months. If he is able to do this, Hibs should have on their hands a hungry, dynamic, clinical striker equipped to deliver in the region of 20 goals this season.