The comments made by new manager Lee Johnson following his appointment last week appeared to cast doubt on a summer of wholesale change down Albion Road way. Instead, he will likely look at bringing in a select number of players – perhaps in the region of five to six – who can improve the squad.
He has already brought in veteran goalkeeper David Marshall and highly-rated young midfielder Nohan Kenneh from Leeds, but there will be others to follow.
The earlier start for the Premier Sports Cup group games points to Hibs getting the bulk of their business done sooner rather than later.
During his four-and-a-bit years at Bristol City and 13 months at Sunderland, Johnson signed a total of 91 players on loan or permanent deals – 11 goalkeepers; six right-backs; 17 centre-backs; five left-backs; two defensive midfielders; 11 central midfielders; four left-wingers / midfielders; 11 right-wingers / midfielders; four attacking midfielders, and 20 strikers.
Some of the 91 remain at Ashton Gate or the Stadium of Light, others have moved up the footballing food chain and others, naturally, have gone in the other direction. Tammy Abraham (26 goals in 48 games while on loan from Chelsea for the Robins during the 2016/17 season) is probably the most high-profile signing in terms of current form but there are a number of noteworthy examples.
Josh Brownhill has spent three seasons in the English Premier League with Burnley after joining from Bristol City while the likes of Filip Benkovic, Jordan Jones, Taylor Moore, Ryan Kent, Jake Vokins, and Marley Watkins will be well known to fans of Scottish football.
Johnson has signed players more than once on occasion – Watkins, who he signed for Barnsley in the summer of 2015 from Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and again for Bristol City in 2018; centre-forward Conor Wilkinson who he brought on loan to Oldham and Barnsley, and Brownhill, who spent time on loan at Barnsley before his permanent move to the Robins.
It is perhaps no surprise that there are one or two patterns in Johnson’s transfer activity to date – and his first two signings for Hibs tread a similar path. The Easter Road manager has regularly picked up young prospects either on loan or on permanent deals with a view to polishing their abilities and giving them a platform to a bigger stage. The acquisition of Kenneh from Leeds is a clear example of this. Is it risky? Yes, but it could also prove a masterstroke.
Hibs have needed a ball-playing holding midfielder for some time and the Liberian-born teenager will be tasked with fulfilling that role in green and white.
Likewise the signing of Marshall. While the wheels for this move were in motion during Shaun Maloney’s tenure, Johnson has regularly picked up experienced players to supplement his squads. Speaking about his signing the manager said: “David’s an excellent goalkeeper and a player who I’ve tried to sign before.
“His experience will be invaluable for us both on and off the pitch. It’s vital that our senior players aren’t just great characters, but also help us set the standard around the training ground and on matchdays."
Maloney spoke about the youthfulness of the squad and a desire to bring in more experienced faces and it would appear that Johnson broadly agrees.
Johnson has utilised the free agent market to bring in experience in the past. Marshall is a free agent come the end of June when he will join Hibs officially and Aiden McGeady, 36, who has been linked with the club and was on the radar during Maloney’s reign, will also be a free agent in the summer and would present a decent option if the move goes through.
Casting the net wide
The brief for Maloney’s successor targeted someone with a good knowledge of UK football, which may seem vague on the surface but makes a lot of sense – and in the end might have been a crucial factor in separating Johnson and Jon Dahl Tomasson.
The Hibs boss has a wealth of contacts throughout the UK and will almost certainly make the most of them as he adds to his squad before the new season.
It’s also worth noting that Johnson has already said that he doesn’t envisage making too many signings – a victory for continuity.
Throughout his stints at Oldham, Barnsley, Bristol City, and Sunderland Johnson dipped into the overseas market to supplement his squad with mixed results.
He isn’t beyond taking a punt on lower- or non-league players either, if he feels they can progress.
Whether homegrown or foreign-based, if Johnson can identify players capable of making an impact then it bodes well for the upcoming season.
Where to strengthen?
Much depends on which players, if any, depart Easter Road. It would be no surprise to see at least one, if not two or even three strikers brought in. With Kevin Nisbet sidelined until at least October with a cruciate ligament injury, James Scott returning to Hull City at the end of his loan deal, and uncertainty over Christian Doidge’s future, Hibs look light in attack as things stand.
Johnson has often dipped into the loan market to bolster his attacking options, often to great success as seen with Abraham’s stint at Ashton Gate during the 2016/17 season, but permanent signings far outweigh temporary transfers in Johnson’s managerial history to date.
There will likely be reinforcements in defence and potentially in the wide attacking areas, along with the middle of the park.
Johnson has already carried out an in-depth review of the current squad and identified those who fit his plans and those who don’t.
We should see more movement in and out once the players return for pre-season training next month but Hibs certainly seem to have a manager with a decent track record in transfer windows.