In his attempts to turn the tide at Hibs, Paul Heckingbottom certainly can’t be accused of shirking big decisions.
The Hibs manager has made some bold calls in recent matches, the nature of which would have seen him savaged by supporters if they had backfired. None of them have been as notable as the changing of the goalkeeper, with Chris Maxwell replacing Ofir Marciano between the sticks for the past three games.
Ordinarily there would be no real issue with dropping a man who had conceded 13 goals in his previous four matches. But this is Marciano, one of the most popular current players among the Hibs support and arguably the best No.1 they have had for more than two decades. He is loved in Leith, even allowing for the fact he didn’t look too clever for goals scored by St Johnstone, Motherwell and Kilmarnock in his last three matches before being demoted to the substitutes’ bench for the visit of Hearts a week past Sunday.
From the moment Maxwell arrived at Hibs on a season-long from Preston North End in the summer, it was clear Heckingbottom wanted a strong goalkeeping department, with two experinced 29-year-olds equally capable of playing regularly when required. As a man who had started almost 350 games in his career and who was playing regularly in the English Championship for his parent club just two seasons ago, Maxwell - like Adam Bogdan last term - was never coming north merely to be a back-up.
With Hibs shipping goals at an alarming rate in the early part of the campaign, Heckingbottom was always likely to focus on what could be done to improve things at the back end of his team. Having seen his defence decimated by injuries in the opening months of the season, the manager hasn’t had the option of freshening up his defence as he chooses, aside from putting in players who have just returned from injury lay-offs and aren’t likely to be fully up to speed.
The goalkeeping position is different, however; arguably the one area of the squad where Heckingbottom currently has genuine strength in depth. Having a man of Maxwell’s pedigree – who brings the added bonus of being renowned for his accurate and effective distribution – waiting in the wings meant there was always a possibility of change when the team was malfunctioning.
Some will argue that Marciano was the least of Hibs’ early-season problems and that he is entitled to feel hard done by at losing his place. He was, after all, still making good saves despite playing behind a defence which was giving him little protection. Goals scored by St Johnstone’s Michael O’Halloran and Motherwell’s Jermaine Hylton, however, did little for the Israeli’s cause, while there is an argument that he could have been better positioned to prevent Kilmarnock’s Liam Millar opening the scoring at Rugby Park in the last game he started.
Since then, Maxwell has vindicated Heckingbottom’s faith in him by producing three assured displays. Although Hibs lost 2-1 in his opening league game against Hearts, Maxwell generally dealt with everything that came his way in a high-pressure derby and appeared to have brought an air of composure to the defence until they lost their way in the last 20 minutes. In his second match, away to Killie in the Betfred Cup, he kept a clean sheet over 120 minutes then saved a penalty in the shootout triumph. On Saturday, he played an accomplished role in restricting Celtic, who had scored 21 times in their previous six league matches, to just one goal.
For all that the introduction of Maxwell appears to have had the desired effect on the team so far, the current situation is sure to be hurting Marciano. Without doing a great deal wrong, the Israeli has gone from the high of playing his first game for his national team in two and a half years to the despair of losing his place at club level within a couple of weeks.
When he suggested in an interview in his homeland in the summer that he felt he deserved a move to “a bigger club” after an excellent second half to last season, Marciano can’t have envisaged that just a few months down the line he’d be warming the substitutes’ bench for Hibs, getting game time in the development team and locked in that frustrating period of goalkeeping wilderness effectively waiting on misfortune to befall a colleague in order to get his own career back on track.
With Maxwell now in possession of the gloves and Heckingbottom clearly in no mood for sentiment as he strives to get Hibs motoring in the right direction, it remains to be seen if and when Marciano’s next chance will come.