What can we expect from Hibs in the January transfer window - exits, loans, free agents?
When the January transfer window opens in less than a month’s time, we can expect some activity from Hibs although probably not on the same scale as summer when 15 new faces filed through the doors at East Mains.
There are likely to be more departures than arrivals, but Martin Boyle’s long-term absence will surely prompt efforts to source a replacement of sorts and uncertainty over Ryan Porteous’ future at Easter Road could also affect business.
But what can we expect, or predict, as Lee Johnson prepares to bolster his squad for the second half of the campaign?
Johnson has already indicated on more than one occasion his desire to trim a bloated squad at Easter Road. Including players out on loan and the handful of youngsters with first-team experience, Hibs have more than 40 players on their books, with room for just 19 in a matchday squad.
His ideal squad is ‘about 23 or 24 players… depending on utility players and injury history’. At the moment the Hibs first-team squad size is clocking in at 27 – 28 if you count long-term absentee Martin Boyle. With Johnson already having hinted at moving on five or six next month, that would potentially leave room for one or two new arrivals in January.
But questions remain. Does the five or six allow for the possible exit of Ryan Porteous? And is the five or six purely first-team players or might it include fringe stars who haven’t featured much, if at all, this season?
The free agent market can be a bit of a minefield but there may be one or two gems out there who could do a job for Hibs in the second half of the campaign. One scenario would be identifying a figure in the mould of Jackson Irvine; a player who might ordinarily be outwith the club’s budget but keen to put themselves in the shop window ahead of the summer. There are certainly some intriguing prospects without clubs at the moment, especially if a stop-gap wideman option is on the table to help cope with the absence of Martin Boyle, but Johnson has never seemed particularly keen to utilise free agents unless absolutely necessary. During his time at Sunderland he was asked about the prospect of scouring the market for freebies and had this to say: “You would consider it. You do get scenarios where players are fit, and they've been in foreign leagues where their seasons end later. MLS is one example, depending on whether they're involved in the play-offs and their contracts etc., you can potentially get them for a short period of time.
"The reality is that these players have got to be fit enough and they've got to be good enough. January is a difficult enough window as it is and certainly the free agent market at this stage of the season is a very tricky one."
He pointed to the Black Cats under-23 team, hinting that he would rather promote from within – and that could offer a crumb of hope for some of Hibs’ under-19s who have enjoyed time with the senior squad already this term.
"You could sign someone on the free market but how long does it take them to understand the culture, the little systematic ways in which we press, the little idiosyncrasies in our possession game? The one thing with the young players is that they'll fight and they'll run. They're a fit group, because we'll work them harder than any squad for exactly this scenario,” he added.
That would suggest that free agents may be a last resort for Hibs come the January window, unless there are any players who would add something to the squad that isn’t currently there.
Hibs currently have five loan players in the first-team squad – Momodou Bojang, Will Fish, Mykola Kukharevych, Ryan Schofield, and Élie Youan – and it remains to be seen if Johnson would be happy to add to that number. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that some loans could be ended early to free up space.
Speaking about loan deals in the summer the Hibs boss said: “You'd much rather a youth player coming through than a loan, but there's context to each individual loan. Élie Youan has the potential to be converted, so it becomes a kind of 'try before you buy'. I like them, because you get to see the person and personality rather than laying out a fortune and realising they're not good enough. We've also got Mykola Kukharevych, which isn't a 'try before you buy' but I think is a brilliant loan. It gives us something different which we couldn't get or afford. It’s important when you get a ‘loan’ loan that they are better than what you've got in the building and what you can develop.”
There’s the possibility that Johnson might look to raid the City Football Group for another Kukharevych-esque signing, or use his extensive contacts book to pluck a talented youngster from the English Premier League, similar to the Will Fish move.
But there is also the option of bringing in an older, more experienced player who is either looking for gametime or, similar to certain free agents, the chance to put themselves in the shop window. Johnson has been clear about his thoughts on loans but being the flexible manager that he is, it’s hard to imagine him turning down a loan deal because it didn’t quite fit his parameters.
In some ways, Hibs’ main tasks in January are simple enough: trim the squad, and bring in one or two quality players in the areas needing reinforcements. One would imagine he already has his eye on potential incomings but he will be hoping they won’t need the luxury of time to settle and can hit the ground running.