The defender has a damaged reputation in Scottish football circles, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be a bad signing for Hibs, as Craig Fowler writes
There’s leaving the house without an umbrella, there’s boasting about never getting sick, and then there’s writing an article praising the signing of Efe Ambrose when his Hibs debut is only two hours away. Yeah, this is the best (or worst) example of tempting fate you will likely see today.
Ambrose, as we all know, is prone to the odd lapse in concentration, to put it mildly. It got so bad at Celtic that even in a pre-season friendly against Leicester, fans weren’t afraid to boo him after an error. Reviled by his own support; rejoiced by others. He’s been the butt of countless jokes in Scottish football.
What’s worse, when it finally looked like he was getting out of this bad situation, when a deal to Blackburn looked on the cards, it all fell apart. Even then it wasn’t a quick rejection. It took an entire month for the English FA to say “nah” before presumably giggling behind his back as he walked forlornly out the door and back to Glasgow. Offered a lifeline by his old boss Neil Lennon, at Easter Road he’ll finally get the chance to start a new chapter in his career.
It’s often said that Ambrose was “never the same” after the infamous Champions League clash with Juventus. The Nigerian, fresh off the plane and presumably a little woozy after celebrating his country’s African Cup of Nations success, made two crucial errors in Celtic’s last 16 loss. Seemingly, he then began suffering from football PTSD, and couldn’t get back to the level he once was. While it’s true that he never again shone in a match on the magnitude of Celtic 2-1 Barcelona, his domestic form the following season was excellent. He and Virgil van Dijk made up the central defensive duo that played a huge role in goalkeeper Fraser Forster breaking Celtic’s clean sheet record during the 2013/14 campaign, going an astounding 13 league matches without conceding a goal.
If you don’t believe me, and I know you don’t, take the word of Celtic supporter and journalist Paul Fisher, who wrote for The Terrace website in the summer of 2014 on the defender’s performance: “Ambrose featured in every single league game and rarely put a foot wrong. His partnerships in central defence over the last couple of seasons have been very good. He keeps a good line but always tries to do something more than required. Massively improved in all aspects of his game and he is maturing into a top class player. And his celebration is second to none.”
Undoubtedly, it started to go downhill from there, with the mistakes piling up as the seasons went by. Brendan Rodgers’ magic touch has brought back the careers of James Forrest, Stuart Armstrong, Scott Brown and even Dedryck Boyata, but there was nothing he could do for Ambrose, who played twice in the Champions League qualifiers - including the infamous 1-0 loss at Lincoln Red Imps - and hasn’t been seen since.
He’s no longer a Celtic-quality player. But Hibs don’t need a Celtic-quality player. They just need a competent defender to cover at centre-back for the rest of the league season. Will we see the same mistakes again in the second tier? Maybe, but probably not. There’s less quality, the game is played at a slightly slower pace, opposing strikers don’t give defenders as hard a time; there are a multitude of reasons why he’ll shine and potentially rebuild his shattered confidence in the Championship.
Compare Ambrose to Gavin Gunning. As much as supporters derided Ambrose, they’d definitely have wanted him over Gunning last season, or at least they should have. United fans were tearing their hair out watching the defender. After his release, he struggled to find a club before finally pitching up at Morton in the autumn. And what happens? He’s excellent in his short spell in Greenock, enough to earn him a move back to England with Grimsby.
Now it’s Ambrose’s turn. It’s a good fit for him at Hibs. Like Celtic, it’ll be a situation he’s used to: a team that dominates possession and plays with a high line. And even if he makes a complete hash of things once in a while, after all, old habits die hard, he should have the recovery speed to make up for it.
And Efe, if you’re reading this after 9.30pm tonight, I’m so sorry. Keep your chin up, mate, you’ll get them next time.