Which of Celtic's three available loanees should Hibs look to sign?
Brendan Rodgers yesterday revealed that three of his first-team squad at Celtic will be allowed to leave on loan in the January transfer window: Youssouf Mulumbu, Jack Hendry and Lewis Morgan.
All three have shown in the past that they are capable of starring at this level and all three should be highly coveted by other Scottish clubs throughout this month. Though there is one team in particular who could really do with the services of each and every one of them: Hibs. Indeed, they have already been linked with Morgan, who’s made 13 appearances but only one start since returning to the Scottish champions in the summer after helping fire St Mirren back to the top flight.
In an ideal world they would recruit all of them, along with signing Scott Allan, but unless Celtic are willing to part with these players permanently - and in Hendry and Morgan’s case, given their youth and upside, that isn’t going to happen - then Neil Lennon’s side have to make do with one under SPFL rules regarding loan deals.
Let’s begin with Hendry, who is likely the player that would interest Lennon the least. The centre-back has been much-maligned since moving from Dundee last season. He’s made mistakes in defence and has frightened the life out of Celtic fans with the ball at his feet. While he was too good for Dens Park, it seems the move to Glasgow’s East End was too big a jump at this stage in his career.
Easter Road could represent a solid middle ground for him to rebuild his form and confidence. He’d likely get a decent run if Hibs continue with a three-man defence, and would fit into that system nicely due to his willingness to step out with the football. A trio of Hendry at right centre-back, Paul Hanlon on the left and either Darren McGregor or Ryan Porteous heading everything going in the middle makes for a unit both capable of protecting the goal and helping establish possession further up the park.
But if Lennon goes with a four-man back-line then Hendry would probably be the odd-man out. McGregor is out of contract in the summer and, at 33, may not have much left in the tank, but it would be strange if either Hanlon or Porteous were dropped out to help facilitate and develop a Celtic player.
It would also be a significant gamble to assume he’ll immediately return to his Dundee form once outside of the Glasgow cauldron. Edinburgh brings its own pressures and with supporters expecting a much improved second half of the season from their side, they will have little patience for erratic defensive play.
Morgan, it would seem, is the most likely candidate. St Mirren are interested in bringing the player back to Paisley, though Celtic could be reticent for two reasons: one, they may wish to challenge his adaptability by forcing him to perform out of his previous comfortable zone; and two, St Mirren have been an absolute shambles this season and Rodgers should be wary that their ineptitude isn’t contagious. Sending him to a European contender - or at least a club of that stature - worked with Ryan Christie and they’ll be looking to do likewise with Morgan... unless Jack Ross adds him to his growing ex-SPFL contingent at Sunderland.
Without Martin Boyle for the rest of the season and Thomas Agyepong fading into mythical status due to his recurring injury issues, a new winger is a high priority for Lennon this window. Morgan not only has the talent to shine, he is comfortable with either foot and can even play in attack should the manager go with a narrow diamond against certain opponents.
Lastly, we come to Mulumbu. The Conogolese international has endured a rather strange 2018/19 season to say the least. He not only starred in the Scottish top flight last term, he often made it look like a level beneath him, even in matches against Celtic. Despite this, he entered this campaign without a club as no side capable of handing him a final lucrative payday decided to pull the trigger on a deal.
Then Celtic stepped in; frustrated, scrambling, please-can-we-just-sign-someone Celtic. They handed him a two-year deal with the offer of European football. While it smacked of desperation, it shouldn’t have been the worst move. He was excellent in the league last season and, at the very least, should’ve been able to replicate that. And who knows? Maybe he would have if he’d played more than three games.
He even showed up reasonably well in his only two starts - away to Salzburg and Kilmarnock - earning the few crusts of praise being handed out by an angry support as the Hoops lost both matches. Then he disappeared for a month before being thrown on in the final seven minutes of Celtic’s crucial home clash with RB Leipzig. It wasn’t much time to make an impression, but by god Mulumbu certainly did. Unfortunately it was for the wrong reasons as he endured several bombscare moments as Celtic managed to hold on to their slender 2-1 advantage by the skin of their teeth. He hasn’t been seen since.
Signing a 31-year-old who’s played just a handful of games in eight months and therefore short of match sharpness doesn’t sound ideal for Hibs. In fact, it sounds worryingly familiar given the ultimate pointlessness that was the Charalampos Mavrias deal. But if he’s anything like the player he was for Kilmarnock then this is the man Hibs should be pushing to sign.
There’s been a lot of talk about Hibs replacing John McGinn and Mulumbu, at his best, would do just that. He’s a very different style of player but remains exactly the type they’re looking for: a No.8 who’s combative and creative; capable of controlling games and gluing the team together. Weirdly, people often think of Mulumbu as a defensive midfielder, but he’s not. He’s got much more to give going forward than a Marvin Bartley or Mark Milligan.
While Hibs desperately need players on the wings and cover in their defence, the biggest problem this season has been the midfield area and the difficulty in replacing the beloved trio of Allan, McGinn and Dylan McGeouch. Ryan Gauld will certainly help, but a player with muscle who’s capable of influencing games further up the park would be a tremendous boost. If he’s willing, and Mulumbu-whisperer Steve Clarke doesn’t intervene, then this is the man Lennon should go after.