Why Hibs can’t rush to put Kevin Nisbet ‘better player’ claim to the test
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After 10 months out with an ACL knee injury, the 25-year-old says he “can’t wait” for Thursday’s trip to Ibrox and is eager to be involved. But with three big games to follow over the festive period against Livingston, Celtic and Hearts, and the second half of the season lying ahead, the manager has some thinking to do.
Will Nisbet start? Much depends on the fitness of Mykola Kukharevych. The on-loan Ukrainian striker missed the friendlies against Middlesbrough and Raith Rovers after picking up a medial ligament injury against Kilmarnock in the final league match before the World Cup winter break. Johnson is “hopeful” the 6ft 3in targetman is ready for Ibrox but has offered no guarantee. His other option in attack is Harry McKirdy, who has been paired with Nisbet in two recent friendlies but hasn’t had much competitive game-time either.
The injury to Martin Boyle, of course, has deprived Johnson of his most potent attacking weapon at a time when he needs results and is face a tough run of festive fixtures. But the manager is understandably wary of putting pressure on Nisbet to instantly fill the void left by Boyle. They are very different players for a start. Nisbet will also take time to get up to speed in competitive football. As Johnson has already explained, the former Dunfermline striker can’t be expected to play four 90-minute games in 19 days after spending 10 months out injured.
“I’m very conscious not to put too much pressure on him,” the manager said at the weekend. “At the moment, he’s like the saviour of Hibs and the reality is he’s come from nine months of a really difficult comeback. He’s done extremely well, but sometimes you can’t expect the physical athlete to be the same person as the name on the team sheet until they get that run of games.
“As you look at the Christmas and New Year period, we’ve had conversations with physios about those players. They can’t play all those minutes, four games in a row, it can’t be done. You’re asking them to break down. That’s really difficult as a manager, particularly when you haven’t had the results you desired recently.”
All of which suggests that Nisbet will be in and out over the coming weeks. Johnson will ease him in, utilising Kukharevych and McKirdy too, sharing the load between the three of them. It’s worth remembering that Nisbet wasn’t in particularly good form when he suffered his horrific injury in February and hasn’t played in a competitive match under Johnson.
Shaun Maloney was the manager when Nisbet injured his knee against Celtic. That was at a time when his goal-scoring had dried up and he was dropping deep into midfield to get on the ball, much to the chagrin of Hibs fans. They had previously seen him form an effective and potent strike partnership with Christian Doidge, the pair of them given excellent service by Boyle.
Things have changed since then, but Nisbet is well enough known to Johnson. The manager admitted he tried to buy the striker when he was in charge at Sunderland. It will be interesting to see if and how a change of manager changes the way Nisbet plays. Johnson’s high-press style is very different to Maloney’s style. It’s also different to the way Hibs played under Jack Ross.
The player himself is confident that he can come back as a better player and says he has been working on his weaknesses. His left foot, for example. He has also taken great encouragement from the faith Johnson has shown in him since taking over in the summer. “If I was injured and someone else had come in, then I might have wondered whether I would play for him or not but the gaffer spoke to me a lot and I have always been in his plans,” Nisbet explained.
He has a clean slate and should be given a warm reception by the Hibs fans, who know what he is capable of. What came across from the interviews he did at the weekend was a real determination to prove the doubters wrong and prove himself again.
“I can’t wait for Thursday and I have a decent record at Ibrox,” he said. “I have to go out there and prove to people how good a player I am. I know there will be doubters after being out for so long, but I want to show what I can do and help us get the three points.”
Nisbet feels he is mentally stronger than he was before and Hibs fans will be hoping that Johnson’s influence can rejuvenate a striker who was good enough to be Scotland’s back-up striker at the Euros when he was at his best. The player himself is setting his sights higher, raising expectations.
“I think I’ll come back a better player,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot in the gym and things that I couldn’t really work on when I was playing. I’ve had time to re-evaluate where I want to be as a player and how to get there. I feel better physically and mentally now.
“The things I worked on were getting stronger and quicker, as well as working on my left foot. In the past I was playing every week, so it was game, recovery, train and game. I had the time to put some stuff right and I feel people will see a different player.”
Hibs fans will look forward to that but patience is required. There should be no rush to judge him over the next few weeks. But if Nisbet does prove to be better than he was before, Hibs will reap the rewards.