There's nothing more exciting in European football right now than the race for second place…
This season has seen Hibernian exceed all expectations following their promotion from the Championship last season. As the season draws to a close the Edinburgh side are in fourth place, two points behind third place Rangers and three points behind Aberdeen in third.
Whilst there are many factors that have contributed to the Easter Road side’s impressive season – for example the management of Neil Lennon and the general infrastructure of the club – it is perhaps their recruitment that has stood out this season as Hibs have accessed markets that are perhaps unusual for Scottish clubs. In this the club’s head of recruitment Graeme Mathie deserves an enormous amount of credit.
It is always interesting at the end of the season to look at clubs that have performed well and look to break down their recruitment strategies to see if we can identify trends that can predict future or continued success.
We will break down Hibs recruitment in to three key markets from the domestic market to the English market and then down to the European market.
Domestically Hibs moved quickly to secure experience as well as squad depth. This is completely understandable given that the squad that gained promotion from the Championship had limited experience of exposure at this level. The fact that no money was spent by Hibs in the Scottish market is also something that should be taken in to account. With little immediate outlay in terms of transfer spending what kind of value were Hibs able to extricate from the players available to them within Scotland?
The most value comes in the signing of much maligned defender Efe Ambrose from Celtic. The big defender is still only 28 years old and has been an important part of Hibs defensive structure this season, at the time of writing he has already played 3805 minutes this season. Given the preference shown previously be Lennon to build from the back this signing appears crucial.
Next up comes the signing of striker Simon Murray from Championship side Dundee Utd. This may come as something of a surprise given the decision in the January transfer window to loan the striker to fellow Premiership side Dundee but in the first half of the season Murray’s six goals were important for Hibs as it help establish them within the top half of the league. Arguably Murray never really fit with Hibs style.
Scott Allan arrived in January on loan from Celtic, once more as a player who had previously played for the club. He has acted as an important cog in the midfield for Hibs since making the move and played a pivotal role in the club’s late charge for second place with six assists and two goals in 10 games. After these notable domestic players, value from the domestic market takes a significant nose dive with the likes of Danny Swanson featuring as bit-part players but not making any real long term impact.
It is normal for clubs in the Premiership to target the English market – especially at the lower levels – as they look to find value for money. In this respect the Hibs recruitment team did exceptionally well in combining players with extensive experience of the Scottish game along with a young player who has provided real value over the course of the season.
Bringing Steven Whittaker back to the club for a second spell made perfect sense as the fullback brings extensive experience to the club as well as those hard-to-define leadership qualities that can be important for a side when acclimating to a higher league. At 33 Whittaker may be winding down his career but the benefit of having him in the dressing room far outweighs the negatives of his declining athletic abilities.
The signing of Anthony Stokes on paper at least made sense for the club as he returned for his third spell in Edinburgh. Initially the deal looked to be a good one with seven goals in 18 games, although it fell apart in January when the forward breached club discipline and was released with 18 months of his contract still to run. Once again though seven goals over the first six months of the season is worth the price.
Brandon Barker appears to be an inspired signing for the club. The Manchester City youngster had already gained first team experience on loan in the Eredivisie with NAC Breda and he has slotted straight in to the first team picture for Hibs this season. Unfortunately, he may well have performed so well that he has priced himself out of a permanent or even repeat loan deal at the club.
When we venture in to the club’s continental dealings we see where they committed some money in terms of transfer spend.
Ofir Marciano had originally joined Hibs on loan from FC Ashod for the 2016/17 season although the Israeli international goalkeeper impressed enough that the club made the move permanent for the start of this season.
The Lithuanian international midfielder Vykintas Slivka was another interesting signing for the club as he moved over from Italian giants Juventus. Injuries have hampered his game time so far this season and he has only managed to play 1087 minutes – although two goals and two assists in that time has been a decent return.
The signing on loan of Australian Jamie Maclaren from German side SV Darmstadt has also provided an interesting option in the final third for Hibs. Five goals over the course of the second half of the season has added some necessary firepower up front for a side challenging for second place.
Perhaps the star of the entire season so far for Hibs is a player who only joined on loan in January; Florian Kamberi. The Swiss striker moved to Hibs on the last day of the winter transfer window and made an immediate impact with a goal on his debut against Motherwell. So far he has seven goals in 12 games for the Scottish side.
For me the most impressive aspect of Hibs recruitment this season has been their willingness to think outside the box by exploring markets that are not normally accessed by domestic rivals. The three main signings from Europe have added significant value for a relatively low outlay.
Domestic rivals like Hearts and Aberdeen in particular tend to favour the English markets in their recruitment and by widening the scope of their approach Hibs have quickly closed the gap on their rivals over the course of their first season back in the top flight.
At almost every point of the season, Lennon has been able to turn to a relatively new signing within his squad to fill in or even win a game. Without the likes of Ambrose, Allan, Kamberi, etc. the Easter Road side would most likely be further down the league table.
As such, it will be interesting to see whether they choose to double down on this eclectic approach to the transfer window this summer or whether they will revert to more well known recruitment markets.