Why Hibs might actually be facing a bigger transfer window this summer compared to last season
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A total of 17 players were brought in last summer including development signings, loans, loans-made-permanent in the cases of Rocky Bushiri and Ewan Henderson, and permanent deals. Even taking away the likes of Bushiri and Henderson who weren’t exactly ‘new’ faces; Reuben McAllister and Kyle McClelland, who were effectively signed for the development squad, and Momodou Bojang and Ryan Schofield whose season-long loans were cut short for differing reasons, it was still 11 new faces – a team in itself.
Manager Lee Johnson talked up the new recruits. Halfway through the season, as he reflected on a comprehensive new year derby scudding in the depths of Tynecastle Park, he bemoaned the quality of his squad. "We can’t keep being average at best,” he fumed.
"Everyone needs to tell themselves some home truths. It feels like a big club, so act like a big player within a big club, and have that bottle to go and produce, not just in training but in games. We have got to do more, and part of that is a bit of a revolution now, not just an evolution. I think the actual revolution is about getting the deadwood out and increasing the quality.”
It was interesting, then, to hear him say similar in the aftermath of Sunday’s defeat by Rangers. "There needs to be another evolution of our squad. We're not going to settle. We want to build and hold onto the core but some players have got to do more or they move on. The quicker they realise that Hibs is a fantastic club to play for the better, and that it's not just about being a footballer or coming in every day and training, it's actually about performing in these big games week in, week out.”
One point of view is that this is Johnson’s problem; that he should carry the can if he can’t motivate the players to produce on a weekly basis. Another viewpoint might be that this transitional period down Easter Road way is taking longer than hoped. The impact of Ron Gordon’s illness and untimely passing shouldn’t be underestimated, of course. But after a false start last year, Hibs have no room for error this summer.
The arrival of director of football Brian McDermott – a man with scouting and managerial experience who puts a big emphasis on character – could actually turn out to be the club’s best signing if he is able to help uncover gems for Hibs, as is his wont.
"Sometimes you make mistakes, there’s injuries, they are human beings, they want to go, they want more game-time – every club in the land will have this evolution of player churn and turnaround and we’re no different. I just think we’ve had too many,” Johnson said in December.
As things stand and excluding loan players, the out of contract first-team players are goalkeeper Kevin Dąbrowski, who is expected to move on; defender Darren McGregor, who will almost certainly continue his academy coaching role; centre-back Mikey Devlin, and winger Aiden McGeady. The future of the latter two remains uncertain, with McGeady having the added complication of injury rehabilitation.
There could also be outgoings – Kevin Nisbet will continue to attract interest while Josh Campbell has also been mentioned in despatches, and Johnson’s post-Rangers comments hint at more exits for players who he feels can’t cut it in green and white. But regardless of who leaves this summer, Hibs have to get it right in terms of incomings.
January’s business, and the separate admissions by both Johnson and chief executive Ben Kensell that recruitment hadn’t been good enough last summer, suggest that there will be fewer risks taken, and a shift to proven instead of punt.
But players have to have good character as well. Some targets may look good on paper, may fit the bill in terms of their stats – and we all know how much Johnson focuses on a player’s numbers – but if there are red flags in their personality, Hibs will move on. Some fans dismissed the manager’s comments about Devlin’s impact in the dressing room but it all comes back to building something for the future, taking time to put the foundations in place to avoid a repeat scenario every 12-18 months.
Whether Hibs qualify for Europe or face another tilt at the Viaplay Cup group stages, they need to have a squad of players in early. There isn’t a great amount of time between the end of this campaign and the start of pre-season. What Hibs do have this time around is a manager in situ, an experienced director of football, and – hopefully – the ability to learn from past mistakes. It seems more than coincidental that Johnson has often spoken about managers needing three or four transfer windows to really make an impact at a club.
Wherever Hibs finish this season they will have performed better than last year in terms of league placing – but that can’t be the minimum requirement. Be it players, coaching staff, or chief executive, those at Easter Road are in agreement that regular European football, going deep in both cup competitions, and finishing in the top three or four in the league should be the norm, should be the annual targets no matter what.
There have been some signs of improvement, but not nearly enough, and while we know Rome wasn’t built in a day, there have been too many stutters and stumbles in the last 12 months where there shouldn’t have been. There is every suggestion that the club’s hierarchy recognises this – the onus is on them now to ensure there are no repeats.