It’s fair to say that Hibernian FC had an eventful January. Six players in, five players out. One name even managed to make it onto both of those lists.
Given that, as of 31 December, the Edinburgh club’s squad was arguably one of the most balanced and impressive in the league, it’s doubtful that many at Easter Road would have expected major surgery in this window. That so many changes have been made is down to a unique combination of insubordination, ambition and opportunity.
The Goalie-go-round – Bain in, Bain out, Bell in.
This is one area of the team where Lennon might have been expected to make a move. Hibernian’s traditionally troublesome goalkeeping position had been filled impressively in their promotion season by Israeli internationalist Ofir Marciano. However, as this season went on, some high profile clangers led to questions over Marciano’s abilities, and Lennon decided he needed more pressing competition than Ross Laidlaw could offer. Scott Bain, the talented Scotland squad keeper who had fallen out of favour at Dundee, was too good a player not to take a punt on, and arrived at Easter Road on 1st January.
But the story was not to end there. As the month reached its climax, Celtic’s Craig Gordon picked up a nasty looking injury (whilst playing against Hibs, ironically). All of a sudden, Celtic were scrambling around for a goalkeeper, and launched an audacious bid for Bain. With Marciano having had a very fine January in the meantime, Lennon clearly felt that his need for Bain had lessened, and allowed the move to happen, but not before using his newfound leverage to engage in some serious horsetrading with the Celts and Dundee (see below). Everyone wins in this deal: Celtic get a fine keeper who will push Dorus de Vries for a first team spot; Bain gets a dream move and a chance to compete for European football and trophies; and canny Hibs get an almost equally capable understudy in the shape of Cammy Bell (the Scott Bain of 2010) who was quickly snapped up on a Bosman.
The makeweights: Allan in, Murray Out
Riding on the coat tails of Scott Bain’s transfer to Celtic was the future of two other players: Scott Allan and Simon Murray. The whole affair was like a Poundland version of the Aubameyang-Giroud-Batshuayi menage a trois in England, and with no less intrigue.
Let’s start with Allan, a player who, having presumably spent the last two and a half years regretting his decision to leave Easter Road, has returned to the scene of his greatest footballing achievements. In a time before John McGinn, Allan was the main man in a talented Hibs side who upset a few apple carts in that blockbuster Championship season that saw three of Scotland’s biggest clubs populate the second tier. Whilst he may not walk straight into a midfield dominated by McGinn and Dylan McGeouch, this looks like a bit of succession planning from a manager who surely knows that at least one of his midfield stars won’t be around next season. If Allan can rediscover the sort of form he had last time round, this will prove to be a great signing from Lennon.
Slightly more perplexing is the decision to allow Simon Murray to leave the club for a loan spell at Dundee. Unorthodox and raw, Murray is capable of fantastic goalscoring streaks and moments of real menace, as evidenced by his fine goal against Rangers back in August. He leaves as the club’s top scorer, and it can only be assumed that Dundee played hard ball on this one. Whilst Lennon would have been reluctant to let him go, he must have considered it a necessary evil to facilitate the signing of a far rarer talent in Scott Allan. Dundee, for their part, have acquired the kind of sparky forward presence that they have been missing at times this season.
All change in the forward line: Stokes and Matulevicius out; MacLaren and Kamberi in
Murray’s enforced exile was not the only change to the Hibs forward line, though, with that department of the team looking unrecognisable to the strikeforce that started the season.
Gone is Anthony Stokes, forever a Hibs legend due to his wonderful brace in the epoch-defining Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers. Whilst his undoubted talent will be a huge miss, the all-too-familiar doubts about his discipline are thrown into sharp focus when even Neil Lennon (who has shown admirable patience with Stokes, and who arguably owed his job to three minutes of the Dubliner’s genius at Rugby Park back in their Celtic days) can take no more. If Stokes can’t make his face fit at a club with a sympathetic manager and an adoring fanbase, it is doubtful it will fit anywhere.
There will be considerable fewer tears shed over the departure of Matulevicius, whose indifferent form has been overshadowed by his countryman, Vykintas Slivka.
Coming in the opposite direction are Jamie MacLaren and Florian Kamberi. MacLaren is an Australian internationalist with a good pedigree, having impressed in the A-League (he was voted Young Footballer of the Year in 2016 after coming second top in the league scoring charts) and appeared in the German second tier. Less is known about Kamberi, although the young Swiss striker, on loan from the excellently named Grasshopper Zurich, laid down a marker with a debut goal against Motherwell. These two will compete with youngster Oli Shaw for places in a strikeforce that looks exciting, if untested.
Good window, bad window?
Faced with some challenging circumstances, Lennon unleashed his inner Harry Redknapp in a spree of late window wheeling and dealing. He has signed some exciting players of potential, but has had to sacrifice proven SPFL performers to do so. Much rests on the signing of Scott Allan, the man for whom Lennon was willing to go out on a limb and risk upsetting the balance of his squad. The manager now has his man; only time will tell if his gamble pays off.