Hibs chief executive Ben Kensell opens up on Shaun Maloney appointment, Jack Ross departure, club vision, recruitment department and more

So much has changed at Hibs since chief executive Ben Kensell’s arrival at the club in July.

A new manager has been appointed in Shaun Maloney, an academy director has been hired in Steve Kean, the recruitment department has been restructured and some key figures have exited Easter Road, not least former first-team boss Jack Ross and star player Martin Boyle, sold in January to Saudi Arabians Al-Faisaly for £3million.

Hibs are going through a period of transition, with owner Ron Gordon entrusting Kensell – formerly the chief operating officer of Norwich City – to head it all up. Speaking publicly for the first time since November, Kensell explained the appointment of Maloney, why he felt it was the right time to dismiss Ross and what he expects the club to achieve in the short and the long term.

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"I'm quite a glass-half-full person so I don't see it as difficult, I see it as more kind of challenging,” Kensell responds when asked about the state of flux Hibs have been in. “It's been a pleasure to be at the club during these periods. But it's never nice, with the amount of changes we've had.

Hibs chief executive Ben Kensell was unveiled at Easter Road on August 3, 2021. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

“I think it's probably fair to say that I had a really good working relationship with Jack [Ross] and the team, and I was really proud of how David Gray and Eddie May took the team during that interim period.

“The appointment of Shaun after what was quite a robust process, away from Edinburgh, and at times quite tricky with Covid still being upon us – the first time I've ever had to conduct a process like that, sometimes virtually, sometimes in person.

"So that threw a few challenges up, but we ended up with the right candidate, and Shaun is going to lead this club – hopefully – to really good things.”

Jack Ross and his departure

Jack Ross departed Hibs at the end of last year.

When asked about parting company with Ross, just over a week before the Premier Sports Cup final against Celtic, Kensell is open on the subject.

“I don't think there's ever a right time to make a change, because there will always be opinions around whether someone should be given the final or not, which is what was obviously the main point that was raised,” he explains.

“I just felt that our league performances weren't where we wanted them to be for the club, so we decided to make the change.

“We thanked Jack and his team for their services; for what they've done, which has been really, really significant for the club, and decided to move on as quickly as we possibly could, getting a process in place that we knew would mean, potentially, bringing a slightly different direction to the club.

Shaun Maloney was unveiled as the new Hibs manager on December 20, 2021. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

"Getting rid of any individual at any football club or in any business is never a nice thing to do, but you have to show leadership at that point, and you have to do the difficult things along with the good things.

“It was a decision that we made as a club, and a decision that I then needed to follow through and get the appointment right moving forward.

“It's never, never nice. You don't look forward to these sorts of situations, you don't want them to happen, but they do. That's life.”

Bringing in Shaun Maloney

Hibs manager Shaun Maloney during Hibernian media access at the Hibernian Training Centre, on February 11, 2022.

Maloney was appointed on December 20, nine days after the axe fell on Ross and a day after the narrow cup final defeat by Celtic. “I knew about Shaun before the process, but you never really think about it, you just know about a lot of managers that have done good things, have good strong coaching credentials, or are identified as good young prospects who are coming into the game, who want opportunities,” says Kensell.

“It was more a case of me just understanding who was out there in the marketplace but more importantly, the type of coach who had certain attributes, who we believe wanted to move the club forward, and address a certain playing style.”

Kensell accepts that since Maloney’s appointment, there has been the rough and the smooth. The 39-year-old’s tenure began with two wins over Aberdeen and Dundee United but since then, Hibs have been winless in six cinch Premiership matches and lie seventh in the table, their top-six and European aspirations in jeopardy. Their only two wins in 2022 have come in the Scottish Cup, against Cove Rangers and Arbroath, but they are in the quarter-finals and some confidence has been restored to the team after a good performance at Gayfield. Seven new players have also been brought into the first-team pool as the club takes its first steps in revamping that side of the operation.

‘I want to win every game’

"Let's take this elephant out of the room,” continues Kensell. “I'm a football fan so I want to win every game. Even as chief exec, I want to win every game, so I feel the pain when we lose, especially at home.

“I want us to be successful, Shaun wants us to be successful every game. But we have to bear in mind that he has not been in two months yet and there's been a huge change, an intense amount of change at the club.

Hibs owner Ron Gordon alongside CEO Ben Kensell during the cinch Premiership match between Hibs and St Johnstone on September 25. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

“Normally you start to see the fruits of your labour when you have a period of stability. You get over that initial stage where you're implementing, and then you start fine-tuning, and then actually see the fruits of your labour.

“What we've done is we've effectively appointed a new manager with quite a different playing philosophy: possession-based, quite attack-minded, a different formation, and players have to adapt to that. There's then the January transfer window coming up and the enforced early winter break [due to Covid], which didn't help us from a momentum perspective.

"We had a really good start with the two wins but, as you sometimes see with new management, we had that bump. I think we would have had at least two if not three more fixtures if we hadn't broken early, which I think would have helped us.

“We then go into a January transfer window where we've already done a lot of our work around players who we wanted to bring in, Shaun obviously buys into that – Shaun makes the final decision on any player who comes into the club.

"We then have this intense period of bringing in a lot of players and seeing a lot of players leave the club.

“It's a club that was definitely in transition and there's been a lot of change in a short period of time.

“What I'd really like to see now is just a period of stability and growth, and let's be judged on the results over that period of time.”

Short-term and long-term goals

Despite the turbulence of the past few months, Kensell still has high ambitions for Hibs. A top-four finish and the European football it would bring next season is still achievable, and three of their next four matches are against the bottom three in the league in Ross County, Dundee and St Johnstone, while another date at Hampden is entirely possible, with a last-eight date with Motherwell in the Scottish Cup.

“I always think it's better to travel in hope rather than expectation, but I'm a Gillingham supporter and my team has never really done anything of note,” Kensell says with a smile, before adding with a more serious tone: “When it comes to Hibs we're very, very clear. It has to be easily a top-six finish from our perspective. There are certain parameters that we have, but we always put down a top-four finish.

“We want to go deep into a cup, if not win a cup. We did well by getting to the League Cup final. I think we were unlucky. Decisions went against us that in my opinion, would have given us the opportunity to win or at least take the game into extra time.

“We still have aspirations to finish in the top four, and that's exactly what Shaun is aware of, because that then unlocks the European aspirations that we have.

“Those objectives won't ever change while I'm here. We have really good, progressive goals that we want to go after, that will help the club grow in every sense.

“If we can grow financially, we can then reinvest that back on the pitch, get better players, entertain the fans, and make Easter Road a really, really tough place to come.”

Recruitment set-up revealed

The recent transfer business at Hibs shows the route the club is going down. All seven first-team winter recruits are 25-year-old or younger. In Chris Mueller, Demetri Mitchell, Ewan Henderson and Elias Melkersen, Hibs have tied down players who have had experience at high-level clubs and have scope to progress. Rocky Bushiri, Sylvester Jasper and Harry Clarke have come in on loan but Hibs retain options to buy them, while the youth ranks have been swelled by the additions of Runar Hauge, Emmanuel Johnson, Joao Balde and Allan Delferriere. Dylan Tait, a cultured midfielder signed from Raith last month, has gone on loan to Kilmarnock to continue his development. While experienced pros such as Paul Hanlon, Lewis Stevenson and Chris Cadden are still important, Hibs are identifying players who can improve at the club, drive it forward and ultimately become commodities in the transfer market.

"We've got a footballing committee which myself, Shaun, and Ian [Gordon, the son of owner Ron] sit on and that's the team that needs to pull together the targets aligned with Shaun's management team,” Kensell says as he explains the make-up of the recruitment department since the departure of Graeme Mathie as sporting director last September.

“What I do is make sure that there is a governance to that process, to ensure that we've got the right players in, that we've identified people in each position for every eventuality and then the discussion with agents and with their representative sits with me.

“We try to prioritise the targets that we're going after within the budgets that we have. And if Shaun wants that player, we understand exactly how that player fits into the model.

“We do checks that are appropriate to ensure that we don't upset the culture that we're building here at the club.

“So we want to bring in the right individuals, who are hungry, ambitious, and want to play for Hibs. If all of those areas work for us, we'll sign the player.

“But we also need to be creative. We won't always have the biggest budget. A lot has been said around players coming in on loan, but if it's a loan with an option that option sits with us and we can then make that deal permanent. It can't always be a transfer fee up front or a loan without any real obligation or option to purchase.

“I think we've got to be a touch more intelligent with the way that we do our transfer business to be able to actually get that player across the line in the end. And that's what we're starting to be.”

Emerging markets and current players

Like many clubs in Scotland now, Hibs are starting to explore new markets, with Norway and the United States – where Ron Gordon is based – areas of interest.

"I think that's where Ian and the recruitment team can do a really good job of widening that recruitment scope,” says Kensell.

“I think it's been evident in this window. We've got to look at players from different markets, because there are opportunities there.

“But we also can't turn our back on the domestic markets. We've just got to have and use our facilities and the resources that we have available to make the right decisions.

“When it crystallises and boils down, it's effectively prioritising what positions we're going after, what attributes we need that we don't have currently, and then it's my job to try and secure them and get them over the line so they can form part of Shaun's squad.”

That’s not to say Hibs are not looking at players already within the building. “I don't believe we should be letting players go into the final year of their contracts, it's not a healthy place for the club to be in,” admits Kensell. “My view on it is that we have to build a core of players that really want to be at this football club and want to achieve, and if we can ensure that we get our players tied down, there are obvious benefits to the club.”

Owning the project

Kensell knows the buck stops with him, as the face behind the new-look Hibs. “We are trying to do things a little bit differently at this club,” he adds. “I've brought in some different ways of operating, and they've been well received.

“But whether I've done a good job so far, or a pretty poor job, that will be for other people to decide, but I'm delighted to be here. It's a great club, a great city, and lovely people.

“The majority of the fans I've spoken to have been really appreciative of the efforts made, and some of them have been really honest and I appreciate their honesty.

“I would always say that if people have any gripes or if they have any frustrations, don't aim them at the players don't aim them at Shaun – aim them at me, because I'll take all of that, if it means that it deflects from the players or the manager feeling under pressure.

“People playing under pressure doesn't necessarily bring the best out of them, and I think in a supportive environment – which in football I know isn't always the case – I know that we'll get results and I know that we'll entertain if we carry on going down this track.”

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