Lee Johnson discusses Hibs signings and exits as manager reveals 'international players turned us down'
Four weeks ago, after the new year derby defeat at Tynecastle, Hibs manager Lee Johnson said he was ‘sick to death of the mediocrity’ in his squad, suggesting up to ten players could leave before the January 31 deadline.
It might have been hyperbole at the time but with 11 players from the first team and development squad leaving either permanently or temporarily, he wasn’t far off with his predictions. Only three new faces arrived – Matthew Hoppe, CJ Egan-Riley, and Jimmy Jeggo – but the main focus was on trimming a bloated squad.
Asked to rate the club’s business in the window as he previews the weekend’s trip to Paisley to face St Mirren, Johnson unsurprisingly homes in on the number of departures as the key element.
"I think it’s been a brilliant window in terms of the outs, because we had to do that,” Johnson says. “You have to remember it’s about the facilities. At some clubs, say Bristol City, there are two facilities there so if a player is not wanted, or not getting gametime, or bringing the culture down then you move them to the other facility and protect the culture. I have worked really hard to protect the culture here between ten and two o’clock, and put the discipline in place and have a different training group on at 3pm so if anybody is causing problems or is not fully focused they can be moved. That 3pm group is also for development so we can improve the young players technically as they are coming up from the academy, and that has been really important. In the last four or five weeks there’s no doubt I’ve noticed the change in the malaise that is sometimes around this place.
Hoppe was a late arrival, announced at half-time during Tuesday night’s 1-1 cinch Premiership draw with Ross County. He was identified as someone who could limit the pressure on Kevin Nisbet to play every minute of every game, but he also has attributes that aren’t present in the other Hibs forwards.
“Matthew is not as advanced as the others in terms of his exposure, even though he’s had international football,” he explains. “I think that one will be interesting. He will either take hold and take the challenge and perform well or it could be difficult because this is a tough league. Jeggo is a proper player with however many league games; CJ is a top, top talent, another level of player.
“This is a brilliant league for young players. We had a couple who turned us down – I couldn’t believe it. They probably didn’t have the respect for Scottish football to advance their career. They are 20, 21-year-old internationalists. I’m thinking, ‘you’re mad, you’re going to play academy football now until the end of the season and you could have had 14 games and six or seven of those are against top teams at top stadiums’. It’s crackers for me. Sometimes it’s the agents stopping it or academy directors. Young lads have got to play football.”
Egan-Riley has already explained the role Burnley boss Vincent Kompany played in him opting to head up the road to Edinburgh for a half-season loan deal, and Johnson appreciates the former Manchester City captain’s approach when it comes to developing younger players.
“There’s a manager and ex-player who understands the important of learning your trade,” Johnson says. “You can only do that by playing games. I believe every player needs 25 games a year, minimum, in a competitive standard to develop. That’s why we work so hard to get a games programme for our younger players. Once you are a CJ and far too good for any development football, then the next step is men’s football and it’s getting that balance between being part of the identity of Burnley for example – top of the Championship with experienced players – and I know for a fact there were top European teams bidding for him last week on a permanent. I spoke to [Middlesbrough manager] Michael Carrick about Matthew, I spoke to the previous manager Chris Wilder as well and Middlesbrough have a talented player there, they spent a lot of money on him and they want the same thing: they want him to have the opportunity but Middlesbrough’s form meant that Michael has taken over and they have made a surging run into the top six in the championship so they have a pretty settled and established 18 players therefore they needed Matthew to go and get some gametime.”
But Hibs are still in the market for players, particularly central defenders, and Mikey Devlin is training with the club while they make a decision on whether or not to sign the former Hamilton Accies, Aberdeen, and Fleetwood Town defender.
Hibs are likely to take ‘between four days and a week’ to make a judgement, according to Johnson, but the clock is ticking with just three fit senior centre-backs available in Will Fish, Paul Hanlon, and Egan-Riley with Rocky Bushiri sidelined through injury and Ryan Porteous having departed for Watford.
"Mikey is one of those who is affordable, available, accessible, and out of contract,” the manager explains. “He has had his injury issues but we think we are quite good at dealing with return to play and keeping guys fit.
“The reports we've had from Fleetwood have been positive and there's an opportunity for us to have a look at him and him to have a look at us but at the minute it is nothing more than that. You are looking for someone who can communicate well, who has the playing history in Scotland, and fits the bill perfectly – as long as his body matches the credentials in terms of his resume. He has active offers, but credit to him because he wants to be here and is willing to put them on hold until we’ve made a decision.”