Why Hibs need to get recruitment right in January - and how academy could help
When it became clear in May of this year that Hibs were set to appoint Lee Johnson and not Jon Dahl Tomasson as their new manager, one of the factors supposedly counting against the Dane was his reported wish for a Sporting Director to be brought in to take a lead on transfer matters.
Finance, and in particular salary, was the main stumbling block however, as the Easter Road board of directors weighed up Johnson versus Tomasson in a bid to find a successor to Shaun Maloney. The current Blackburn Rovers manager would not have necessarily been the right man for the job; it was also felt that Johnson’s wealth of experience in the British football market would be beneficial compared to Tomasson’s overseas expertise and a Sporting Director, while a common sight in European football, might not have the desired effect or impact in the Scottish game.
There is always a risk with recruitment, at any level. When Hibs brought in the successful half-season pairing of Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren in January 2018, it was largely because the signings of Simon Murray, Deivydas Matulevičius, and Anthony Stokes hadn’t really worked out. When injury prevented Maclaren from rekindling his effective partnership with Kamberi the following season, Marc McNulty was brought in and the Scottish-Swiss axis was broadly successful 12 months later.
A squad built by three managers
Hibs are currently feeling the effects of three permanent managers in a six-month period. As things stand the squad is a mish-mash of Jack Ross, Shaun Maloney, and Lee Johnson signings with a couple from the Paul Heckingbottom era. It is perhaps no surprise that results have been inconsistent this season. Johnson brought in 12 first-team signings in the summer – 15 if you count loans-made-permanent in Rocky Bushiri and Ewan Henderson and greenlighting David Marshall’s arrival – and of the 12, there aren’t any outstanding success stories so far. Mykola Kukharevych certainly seems to have something about him and Martin Boyle’s prowess was already known to those at the club. In terms of outfield signings Nohan Kenneh, Marijan Čabraja, and Élie Youan have played the most, managing 17, 15, and 15 appearances respectively with the 19-year-old Kenneh putting in some impressive showings in his first season as a senior player.
Injury has played a part with several new arrivals spending extended periods of time on the sidelines – Aiden McGeady, Harry McKirdy, and Lewis Miller especially – but the worrying thing for supporters is that, with one or two exceptions, the new recruits so far don’t appear to be any better than those they replaced.
Johnson has remained steadfast in his belief that when the campaign resumes Hibs will be better citing, among other factors, the return of Kevin Nisbet and McGeady from injury. But he may also be counting on those who have had slow starts to kick into gear; much like Bushiri who has become one of the club’s better performing players after overcoming a, well, rocky start to his time at Easter Road.
Having a sporting director in place wouldn’t necessarily solve every problem at every club but in Hibs’ case perhaps it would be helpful. Having a transfer committee as Hibs currently do is not unusual but perhaps a more streamlined approach could see more gems unearthed capable of hitting the ground running – and there is an example of sorts close to home.
Since the club brought in Steve Kean to head up the Academy the youth team has won the league title, reached the last four of the Scottish Cup, and knocked out two more experienced and more-fancied opponents in the UEFA Youth League. Of the squad, six have made their senior debuts, five of them for Hibs; a seventh has been involved on matchday, and most if not all have trained with the first-team squad. Having a senior figure overseeing operations in the Academy has clearly benefited the young team.
The group was out in Portugal over the weekend, taking part in the Algarve Cup, meaning those who had made the bench in previous cinch Premiership matches were unavailable, along with player-coach Darren McGregor. With Lee Johnson having just 15 fully-fit players at his disposal, 16-year-old Reuben McAllister travelled with the matchday squad to Kilmarnock but ended up not being involved as just eight subs were named.
There is an argument that it would be folly to throw in these teenagers before they are ready, and especially not with the way recent results have gone. But their performances are making it harder and harder to maintain that stance and given Johnson’s comments about wanting to move on five or six players, one would imagine he has an eye on the talented youngsters to supplement his squad for the second half of the season, with finances a little stretched – and he has said repeatedly how keen he is to integrate them into his squad.
‘We will be successful’
Johnson believes Hibs will be successful in time, insisting the players and staff have worked too hard ‘not to be’, and has warned it will take multiple transfer windows to turn the squad into one with which he is happy. With nearly 500 games in management under his belt, there’s a good chance this observation is based on experience rather than hope.
On recruitment, Johnson insists he knows what he needs in terms of incomings and outgoings. If we are to assume that he has time on his side, which would make sense given the frequent managerial upheaval in recent months, then the January window will be interesting. At the moment it feels very much as though he is unsurprisingly trying to juggle a makeshift squad of sorts with pretty heavy expectations from upstairs to better last season’s eighth-placed finish.
The World Cup break might have come at the ideal time for Hibs, with an enforced break from a wretched run of six defeats in seven matches, the chance for injured players to return to fitness, and those who have played a lot to rest ahead of the resumption of football.
But Hibs will have to hit the ground running come mid-December and recruit smartly in January – otherwise the prospect of another disappointing season will loom large, and supporters have seen that movie all too often before.