Will Fish and CJ Egan-Riley show clever use of loan market can work for Hibs, but club needs to look closer to home too

Hibs have five games remaining as they aim to finish as high up as possible in the cinch Premiership table, qualify for Europe, and turn a fairly middling season into one with a modicum of success.
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But there is always uncertainty for some players, particularly loanees. Hibs have three in CJ Egan-Riley, Will Fish, and Matthew Hoppe who are temporarily at Easter Road from clubs in the top two tiers of English football. But perhaps their experience might convince others to give Scotland a chance to boost their careers. Done properly, loans can be a win-win: the player gets guaranteed senior football if they put in the effort, and the club gets a player it likely wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

Manager Lee Johnson was frustrated in his attempts to add players to his ranks during the January window, declaring himself baffled that the young English-based players who had turned down the chance of guaranteed gametime with Hibs would rather play academy football.

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“We had a couple of young players who turned us down – I couldn’t believe it,” he said shortly after the transfer window closed. “They probably didn’t have the respect for Scottish football to advance their career. I’m thinking, ‘you’re mad, you’re going to play academy football and you could have had 14 games, six or seven against top teams at top stadiums’. It’s crackers for me. Young lads have got to play football.”

CJ Egan-Riley and Will Fish take part in training at East Mains, flanked by Mikey Devlin and Lewis StevensonCJ Egan-Riley and Will Fish take part in training at East Mains, flanked by Mikey Devlin and Lewis Stevenson
CJ Egan-Riley and Will Fish take part in training at East Mains, flanked by Mikey Devlin and Lewis Stevenson

Fish and Egan-Riley have become a regular starters under Johnson, with the former partnering Paul Hanlon in defence and learning from the long-serving Hibs captain. Even the one or two mistakes that the on-loan Manchester United man has made, he says, are all part of the learning curve.

"The more games you play, the more confident you get. You can't get too overworked with it because then you start doing stupid things. If you keep calm and trust the players and staff around you, then you are in a good place,” Fish explained.

"When you [make mistakes] at this level, in a game like a derby, you're going to get criticised. You see it online but you have to block it all off and be mentally strong. I've found something else that I didn't have before, so that's all part of the learning and that's the main reason I came up here, to find out more about myself and test myself. I owe Hibs a lot.”

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Speaking in March, Egan-Riley echoed Fish’s comments, saying: “This loan is just what I needed. I was at the stage of feeling ready to play every week and I felt Hibs would be a great place to come and take learnings, play good games, play against different teams. There are a lot of eyes on Scottish football, especially in the big games.”

All have certainly experienced big games although the first post-split match against St Mirren will be just as big. “It’s a huge game. I genuinely feel that this is one of, if not the, biggest game of the season,” Johnson said on Thursday. Having clinched top six, attentions now turn to Europe – ‘we’d have let the fans down if we hadn’t made top six,’ Fish says.

He has benefited from playing alongside Hanlon, a man who knows a thing or two about the highs and lows of the cinch Premiership split having played in both halves during his Hibs career. Five games remaining. Five games to absorb as much as possible from the experienced centre-back. Five games to help Hibs into Europe…?

"Even day-to-day in training, when we are on the same team, Paul will talk to me and discuss different things, but even as a person, he's unbelievable,” Fish adds. “He's been in my situation himself in the past so he knows what it takes. I probably couldn't have asked for a better partner to come through with and hopefully in the last five games we can finish strong. When I was in the United reserves I was one of the older ones, one of the ones who had been there for a while. So that was maybe me with someone else but here, I've made a great relationship with Paul.”

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Speaking last month Hoppe explained the main factor that convinced him that coming to Hibs from Middlesbrough for the second half of the season would be a good move for his career.

He said: “The biggest reason behind coming to Hibs was gametime; to be able to get minutes here has been amazing and it has allowed me to see aspects of my game that I have to work on. I just need to sharpen those up and maybe get a few more goals and then we’ll see what happens.”

Fish has already dismissed the possibility of going back to playing reserve games, and you would imagine Egan-Riley and Hoppe similarly have an eye on more regular senior football. In Fish’s case, there was a season-long plan for him at Hibs which has come to fruition with parent club and loan side happy with the way things have progressed. Clarets boss Vincent Kompany encouraged Egan-Riley to make the move to kick on. Boro boss Michael Carrick knows himself the benefits of a loan spell and encouraged Hoppe to follow suit.

The trick now for Hibs, and this is something that new director of football Brian McDermott may work on, is making smart use of loans while not stunting the progress of their own academy players. It’s a balancing act; money could be used elsewhere if a homegrown player is promoted to the bench, but the academy player needs senior gametime as well. Perhaps next season may bring with it smarter use of the domestic loan system for Hibs players, as well as clever use of the loan market for additions. That way, the pathway for youngsters is clearer and in the long-term that can only benefit Hibs and the players.