By the time next season begins, manager Pat Fenlon could have a first-team squad which is almost unrecognisable from the one which went down to a 5-1 defeat to Hearts in the Scottish Cup final – a transformation which would be greeted with relief by those fans who had to witness that Hampden humiliation.
Having signed so many players on loan during the January window, Fenlon always knew he would need to think again over the summer. The scale of the loss at Hampden merely strengthened his conviction that a thorough transformation of the squad was required.
The statement on the Hibs website yesterday which announced the departure of Murray said that Fenlon would “continue to discuss player availability for next season with the loan players’ clubs once they return from holiday”.
It will be interesting to see how many clubs he contacts, because of the seven loan players only one – James McPake – could be classed as an unqualified success with Hibs.
Of the others, Leigh Griffiths at least displayed the right attitude at Hampden, even though his indiscipline has also caused Fenlon serious problems. George Francomb has shown some promise and versatility, but Matt Doherty, Roy O’Donovan, Tom Soares and Richie Towell have surely not done enough to persuade the manager that he should seek their return.
When Fenlon took over as Hibs manager last November, he quickly identified centre-half as the key position in the club’s battle to escape relegation. He signed McPake on loan from Coventry, and the rest is history: Hibs beat the drop, with the man who Fenlon made captain playing the leading role in their successful survival.
This summer Fenlon faces a far more complex task. Shoring up the defence will not be enough. Every department of the side needs to be rebuilt. That starts at the very back. With Graham Stack and Mark Brown out of contract, the only goalkeepers on the Hibs books will be Hampden substitute Paul Grant and Calum Antell, who was on loan at East Stirling for the season just ended. One of the two experienced keepers should be offered a new contract, but Fenlon will need additional back-up.
In the back four, besides McPake and Doherty, the other two who played against Hearts, Paul Hanlon and Pa Kujabi, remain under contract, as do Sean O’Hanlon, David Stephens and Callum Booth. But even looking charitably at those who remain, there is no way Fenlon could construct a decent defence out of that lot.
O’Hanlon played very well in Hibs’ win at Pittodrie when he stood in for the ill McPake, and Hanlon improved his form while playing alongside the latter. But Booth’s development has stalled, partly because he has been omitted from squads by Fenlon; Stephens has looked ill at ease when he has played; and Kujabi – well, where to start?
The Gambian left-back had a woeful final, being booked in the first half and sent off early in the second after picking up a second yellow card. And that game was just one of a series of performances in which he fell well below the standard required of a defender in a team which hopes to be heading towards the top six of the SPL.
Fenlon’s priority should be trying to persuade McPake to come back, as the Hibs support made plain in the 4-0 win over Dunfermline which secured their top-flight status. “Petrie, Petrie, sign him up,” they chanted at the club chairman.
Rod Petrie is well aware of McPake’s ability, and in an ideal world would sign him up. But, as always, the question for him, in this instance and all the others, is: how much would it cost?
After being one of the few Hibs players who tried to rise to the occasion against Hearts, McPake could be forgiven for concluding that there was little point remaining at such a dispirited club. His profile has risen considerably as a result of his performances since moving from the Midlands on loan, and if it turns out that his future is not at Coventry, it would be no surprise if other clubs in both England and Scotland showed an interest in him.
Should McPake decide against a return to Easter Road, that would leave Fenlon either hoping that the pairing of Hanlon and O’Hanlon works better than it did last season, or deciding that he needed to move into the transfer market to find another leader along the lines of the captain. And, if he wants to steer well clear of relegation, he will have to strengthen at full-back, too. Hanlon can cover at left-back – indeed, he would be preferable there to Kujabi or Booth provided Hibs solve their centre-half problem first. But the right-back position is currently a void waiting to be filled.
When it comes to midfield, the difficulties facing the manager are even greater than in defence. Of the cup-final quartet of Isaiah Osbourne, Lewis Stevenson, Jorge Claros and Tom Soares, only the last named has gone, with Claros still having half a year to run on his loan deal. But Stevenson is the only one of the four who even approached pass marks against Hearts, and he is not the type of character around whom a new midfield could be built.
David Wotherspoon is still at the club but has fallen out of favour. Sam Stanton has been included in some squads for league games and has a growing reputation, but it would be asking far too much of the teenager to thrust him into the engine room and make him a mainstay of the side next season.
Hibs need a defensive midfielder with more authority than Osbourne, a playmaker with more experience than Stanton, and a forward-minded midfielder with far more application than was shown by Soares. In other words, when it comes to central midfield, the same question applies as was posed about Kujabi: where to start?
Wide midfield is a similarly difficult area. Danny Galbraith has been injured for some time but even when fit has not been consistently impressive; and Ivan Sproule retains his eagerness but is less effective than he was during his first spell at Easter Road.
The lack of a threat out wide has a knock-on effect on the full-backs, as was seen at Hampden, where Andrew Driver and Suso Santana ran riot against Doherty and Kujabi. Fenlon tried to counter Hearts’ wide threat by bringing on Sproule for Claros, but that never looked like working even before Kujabi was sent off.
Of the four strikers used by Fenlon in the second half of the season, only Eoin Doyle could remain. Doyle, like Griffiths, ran about willingly if ineffectively at Hampden, and was praised by Fenlon as probably his best player, but he is not tough enough or lethal enough to lead the line at this level.
All this may paint a depressing picture for Hibs fans, but at least Fenlon has known for some time that a summer overhaul would be required. And at least he is making that overhaul in the SPL, which means the job of attracting new players is easier than it would have been if Hibs had gone down to the First Division.
Nevertheless, it is still a complex and demanding job. Fenlon was able to apply the sticking-plasters needed to keep Hibs in the top flight. Now he has to go from first aid to radical surgery – and hope that Petrie gives him the funds to carry it out successfully.