Oli Shaw: Young Hibs striker's career is at a crossroads - what's the best route for him now?
Forward hasn't started game for 11 months but showed his worth in last week's friendly
Almost a year has now elapsed since Leeann Dempster declared that Oli Shaw was “absolutely one of the best young players, certainly for his age group, in Europe".
It is safe to say that this bold statement - deemed fanciful at the time - hasn’t aged well.
In fairness to the Hibs chief executive, Shaw - then 20 years old - had just scored in two of his previous three matches against St Mirren and Aberdeen and was a relatively prominent member of the Easter Road first-team squad at the time. For all that Dempster had clearly got carried away with her words while giving an update to Hibs TV on the search for Neil Lennon’s successor as manager, it offered a clear indication of how highly-regarded the homegrown striker was within the corridors of power at Easter Road.
Remarkably, however, Shaw hasn’t started a single competitive first-team match since the Scottish Cup win at home to Raith Rovers on February 9 last year. That was one day after Dempster’s complimentary description of him and a couple of days before the ill-fated appointment of Paul Heckingbottom, which has proved to be particularly damaging to Shaw’s progress. From being a regular contributor in the closing year or so of Lennon’s reign - to the extent that he was trusted by the Irishman to start three Edinburgh derbies, a league-opener against Motherwell, four matches against the Old Firm and two against Aberdeen - he has now found himself cast, through no clear fault of his own, as something of a misfit under two consecutive managers.
Not Hecky's cup of tea
Heckingbottom evidently didn’t fancy the striker; he afforded him a measly 109 minutes of league action spread across 11 matches in the closing three months of last season, leading a frustrated Shaw to request a loan move away from Hibs in the summer. With several clubs keen on taking him, Heckingbottom - with Florian Kamberi and Christian Doidge as the only other senior strikers on the books - said the club would only allow him to leave if they could source another striker on similar wages. Nothing was forthcoming in this regard, and at the midpoint of the current campaign Shaw has sampled a grand total of 66 Premiership minutes spread across four matches in addition to a handful of substitute outings in the Betfred Cup.
The fact Hibs were struggling for goals in the early months of the season and he still couldn’t get a look-in has exacerbated an increasingly frustrating situation for the Scotland Under-21 striker. Equally demoralising for Shaw is that a change of manager in November doesn’t appear to have improved his predicament. While he appeared in only one league match under Heckingbottom this season - a 27-minute outing as a sub in the 3-0 defeat at Motherwell in August - Shaw has made only three sub appearances (amounting to 39 minutes) in the nine matches since Ross arrived two months ago.
Understandably, with no sign of game time at his boyhood club, he is still eager to get out and play elsewhere, with Ross County, Kilmarnock and St Johnstone monitoring his situation. The rhetoric from management remains the same as it was in the summer, however, with Ross explaining in Spain last week that Hibs are currently too light in attack to allow him to leave.
Ironically, the manager was speaking in the aftermath of a friendly win over Dutch side Willem II in which Shaw started and scored a match-winning double in the absence of the injured Kamberi. At what represents a crucial period in Shaw’s development, this served as a timely reminder to his new manager that when given the chance to start games, he has an impressive strike rate.
In total, Shaw has made 65 competitive first-team appearances for Hibs. Only 21 of those have been as a starter, but he has still returned an impressive 12 goals (including ten in the Premiership and one in a League Cup semi-final). There was also that well-taken goal that should have counted but didn’t at Tynecastle two years ago.
Six of his seven goals last season came in matches which he started. In total, eight of his 12 goals for Hibs have come in matches which he has started. With no starts for almost a full calendar year, it is no coincidence that Shaw has not been scoring goals. “It is difficult to come off the bench and try to make an impression because invariably you come on when the team is losing,” he said last week.
Shaw may lack the explosive spark to produce something out of nothing that previous young Hibs forwards such as Jason Cummings, Steven Fletcher and Derek Riordan displayed after breaking into the first team, but he clearly knows where the goal is. If trusted to start regularly, his stats so far suggest he would be perfectly capable of netting double figures over the course of a season. Indeed, having previously banged in goals at a sensational rate in the development league, it is not hard to envisage Shaw, with some notable first-team experience now under his belt, going on to be a prolific striker if he were allowed the chance to try and get back on track at, for instance, St Johnstone or Kilmarnock. Lawrence Shankland, now a full Scotland striker, is the prime example of how a natural goal-scorer can be discarded by a big club in Scotland in his early 20s and come back stronger after being given a fresh platform from which to flourish.
Is it now or never?
With Shaw now cast as nothing more than a squad filler, there to step off the bench for the last 15 minutes when a goal is required or a senior striker has run his race, it is hard to escape the feeling that a decent young Scottish striker is stagnating at Easter Road.
It is not as if the 21-year-old’s form had been so feeble prior to Heckingbottom’s arrival that he deserved to be edged to the periphery. Having scored in four of his last 12 appearances immediately before the Yorkshireman’s arrival, Shaw is perfectly entitled to feel hard done by and at his wit’s end over the way things have panned out for him.
If Hibs do have genuine hopes for Shaw, they must give him the platform to play far more regularly from the start of matches in the months ahead, otherwise his confidence and sharpness in front of goal will continue to suffer and he will be unable to make any impact in his cameo outings.
If the plan is for him to remain as back-up for Doidge and Kamberi, then Hibs should make a decision to promote the next bright young thing from the academy to the role of bench-warmer and cut Shaw loose to try and reignite his career elsewhere. With the 21-year-old having had the wind removed from his sails over the past year, the current situation is doing nobody concerned any good. A decisive call is required this month with regard to Shaw’s future.