The curious case of Elias Melkersen - and why Hibs forward faces make or break year

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Striker can bounce back from frustrating time in Netherlands

A penny for Elias Melkersen’s thoughts, after a severe lack of playing time during his half-season loan stint in the Netherlands with Sparta Rotterdam. There were more than a few surprised comments from Hibs fans when the deal was announced in January, not least because of the seven-figure buyout clause inserted in the contract.

It was an interesting proposition and a win-win: if the Norwegian forward excelled in the Eredivisie and all parties wanted to make the move permanent, Hibs would be handsomely reimbursed. If things didn't go to plan – and there must have been a suspicion that they wouldn't given his relative lack of gametime in the weeks leading up to his winter transfer window switch – then Hibs would almost certainly be welcoming back a player in the summer desperate to ensure more minutes next season.

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The 20-year-old has only just finished his loan spell; Sparta’s performance throughout the season secured a sixth-placed finish, a marked improvement on last season’s 14th, and he was in the squad for all four of the team’s Europa Conference League play-offs but remained an unused substitute as they were narrowly beaten to continental competition by Twente.

Elias Melkersen spent the second half of the season on loan at Sparta Rotterdam but didn't get as much gametime as he would have likedElias Melkersen spent the second half of the season on loan at Sparta Rotterdam but didn't get as much gametime as he would have liked
Elias Melkersen spent the second half of the season on loan at Sparta Rotterdam but didn't get as much gametime as he would have liked

He got just nine minutes of top-flight action, coming on as a late sub in a 3-0 win at Cambuur, and again in a 3-0 home defeat by Utrecht. He made three appearances for Sparta’s Under-21s in the Twede Divisie.

What happens now?

Given the extended season, Melkersen only left the Netherlands on Monday and will presumably be granted a few extra days off, especially given his recent call-up to the Norway Under-21 side for a friendly double-header against Scotland with matches on Thursday June 15 and Sunday June 18. Much depends on how he feels physically, and how keen he is to make a mark at Hibs.

Manager Lee Johnson insisted last month that the Dutch loan spell hadn’t been a waste of time and that a ‘lot of technical work’ had been done with the player. Melkersen will likely face the option of staying at Hibs and fighting for his place, or heading out on another loan. Johnson’s comment about the Norwegian attacker ‘appreciating the minutes he does get’ may have been a thinly-veiled reference to the fact that he played 793 minutes for Hibs during the first half of the campaign and likely would have played more if it wasn’t for a concussion injury, compared to his paucity of time on the pitch for Maurice Steijn’s side.

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There is perhaps a small irony that part of the reason for Melkersen’s lack of action at Het Kasteel would have been because of the form of compatriot Tobias Lauritsen, whose 15 goals in 40 appearances in all competitions for Sparta earned him links with PSV Eindhoven after just one season in the Dutch top flight.

Nisbet’s replacement?

Melkersen returns to Hibs as one of just two out-and-out centre-forwards alongside Christian Doidge, although the former has the ability to play in the wide areas as well. But it’s worth remembering that by far his best performance in a Hibs shirt came when he was deployed as the nine in a 3-4-2-1 formation under Shaun Maloney in the Scottish Cup quarter-final victory over Motherwell in March last year. Is that enough for him to step into Kevin Nisbet’s boots? Probably not

Time is on Melkersen’s side – he is still just 20 years old, and doesn’t turn 21 until Hogmanay, and it is not unusual for some footballers to be late bloomers. Maturation periods can vary for different reasons. One need only look at Josh Campbell, or even Nisbet himself, as a reason for not judging a younger player too harshly. But you suspect neither management nor fanbase would be happy going into important European games without a more experienced centre-forward on the books. It’s also why links with in-demand Larne forward Lee Bonis seem a little unlikely.

Victim of circumstance?

Unsurprisingly there was a buzz around Melkersen’s arrival. It wasn’t that long after Bodø/Glimt had thrashed Roma 6-1 at home and drawn with them 2-2 in Italy, Hibs had paid a decent fee for him, he had impressive numbers for Norway youth teams and at club level, and he wore a hairband like compatriot Erling Haaland…

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Maloney repeatedly tried to temper expectations but his efforts were in vain; even when he stressed that Melkersen would need time to adapt, settle, and get used to playing on grass pitches having been used to artificial surfaces in his homeland. Nisbet’s injury in February 2022 handed the new boy a chance but it still felt a bit too much too soon. Injury to Doidge probably didn’t help, as it meant Maloney was relying on the raw Melkersen and James Scott, who had had his own struggles with injury and form.

Kicking on

Melkersen actually started the 2022/23 campaign well, scoring four goals in the pre-season friendlies and League Cup group stages, but a concussion injury sidelined him for a significant period of time and by the time he was back in action Hibs were in the midst of one of their losing streaks, broken up by a 3-0 win against St Mirren. He began to get fewer and fewer minutes with his last appearance a five-minute cameo in the 2-2 draw with Dundee United in mid-January.

But we know Johnson rates the forward, who he has described as a ‘top professional’ with ‘all the attributes to be a top number nine’. Melkersen is physically stronger since his arrival in Scotland, his time in the Netherlands will have improved his technical skills, and he has already shown glimpses of his quality. The ball is in his court, and now is the time to show exactly why Hibs were so keen to secure his services – and help the fans forget about the loss of Nisbet.

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