Hibs have been hit with a blow at the start of the transfer window with the departure of Efe Ambrose. Joel Sked looks at why the defender will be missed.
The January transfer window could hardly have got off to a worst start for Hibs. One fan called it “minging” and it is difficult to dispute such a description.
The club have not even left for their mid-season break to Dubai and already lost their best player this season at a time when supporters are in desperate need of encouragement, the team in need of reinforcements after a trying few months.
Influential centre-back Efe Ambrose invoked a clause in his contract which allowed him to leave Hibs this month, despite the best efforts of the Easter Road side to keep him with an enticing three-year-deal, and so it ended a short but successful spell, for both parties.
Having spent half a season on loan, helping Hibs win the 2016-2017 Championship title, the Nigerian took a significant wage cut to join the club permanently after leaving Celtic in the summer of 2017.
Ambrose played more than 160 times for Celtic, winning six trophies, while starring in Europe for the Parkhead side. Yet, despite such success and his substantial international and European experience an unfair reputation built around the centre-back as someone who couldn’t be trusted.
Opposition fans’ eyebrows raised at his presence in the line-up. They spied a weakness. It is a stigma which still exists to this day, despite the consistency and countless impressive performances as a rebuttal so such ill-informed views.
In the build-up to the recent Edinburgh derby, some Hearts fans were giddy at the prospect of Steven Naismith et al. coming up against Ambrose, without realising that he would walk into the Tynecastle side’s defence.
The outpouring of both disappointment and well-wishing from Hibs fans highlights the player’s importance to the Hibees. He has easily been the club’s best and most consistent player this season, at times holding the team together when they have struggled.
Following the defeat to Hearts, Lennon spoke of needing players he can rely on, to be fit, available and robust. Ambrose has epitomised that, missing just one game in the last two seasons and playing every minute this campaign, whether as a centre-back in a back four or three, or at right-back.
In Scotland the 30-year-old perhaps doesn’t get the credit he deserves because his defending isn’t ‘in your face’, not that of a traditional centre-back.
He reads the game rather than rushing into situations. He has made the second most interceptions in the league this term, while his presence in an attacking sense was key to Hibs, making the fourth most passes across the whole division and recording the fourth best dribbling success rate.
He brought a composure and calm-head to the defensive line. It is these qualities which have been of great benefit to the younger players at the club. Ambrose may have shirked media duties from time to time but behind the scenes he was a role model.
For one player more than any other. Ryan Porteous has been another positive from this campaign so far. Aggression is a key tenet of the teenager’s game, however he has noted that he needs to do so in a controlled manner.
The experience playing alongside Ambrose has been priceless.
Speaking after the 2-0 home win over Celtic last month Porteous said: “I think I looked at the clock at about 72 minutes and I looked back 15 minutes later and it was just at 75. They piled on a bit of pressure and you’re obviously aware you’re playing a good team so you need to stay compact.
“But I looked over and I saw Efe just swaggering about. So that gives you a lot of confidence when you’ve got players like that, and Lewis (Stevenson), who was different class on the other side of me as well.
“Efe’s a great player – not just a defender, but a great player as well. He showed his class, defensively, when (James) Forrest took it off me in the first half and he was there to mop it up.”
There were low points, such as feeling the wrath of Neil Lennon for turning up to pre-season late ahead of the 2017-2018 season or being terrorised by Gary Mackay-Steven in a 4-1 loss to Aberdeen last campaign. Yet, these moments have been sporadic.
Not that some pundits or fans will acknowledge that. Ambrose has largely been exemplary at Easter Road and Lennon knows that.
Following a 1-0 win over St Mirren he said: “You don’t play for Celtic for four years and be a bad player. He is probably one of the best centre halves Hibs have had for a long, long time.”
And he will be missed.
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