HIBS head coach Paul Heckingbottom is ready to replicate his Barnsley blueprint for success at Easter Road.
The 41-year-old was a major proponent of the loan market during his two years in charge of the Tykes, with the likes of Lloyd Isgrove, Kevin Long and Ashley Fletcher helping the club to win promotion to the Championship and lift the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in 2016.
He repeated the feat as Barnsley upset the odds to consolidate in the second tier, with current Rangers favourite Ryan Kent among his success stories after joining from Liverpool.
As Heckingbottom tentatively casts his mind towards shaping his squad for next season, he is adamant it would be foolish not to utilise the loan market in order to bely the bigger budgets of other clubs.
“I would be silly not to look at bringing in loans again,” explained Heckingbottom. “I would be limiting the pool of players I am able to have a look at. There are a lot of guys out of our reach in terms of transfer fees and wage demands that aren’t out of our reach in the loan market.
“We want to exploit the fact that we have a good reputation when it comes to making people better. Let’s say to clubs: ‘Why wouldn’t you send your best young talent to us?’ I did the same at Barnsley and it was a real weapon in helping us compete against bigger budgets.
“[Ryan] Kenty was a big one. The season we went up we had Lloyd Isgrove, Josh Brownsville, Harry Chapman, Ashley Fletcher and Kevin Long, who went back to Burnley and got into their first team. We used loans well.
“Of course, it is frustrating when you do all the work with a player, give them the opportunity, make them better and they go back to their parent club and they then sell them for £6m!
“But they have done a job for us. It’s about improving the 11 we have on the pitch. That is the way we have to use it. I would rather build my team around loans to make sure we get the best possible players – players we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.”
Hibs have been no stranger to that strategy this season, with varying degrees of success.
Thomas Agyepong, Ryan Gauld and Darnell Johnson have been plagued by injuries, goalkeeper Adam Bogdan was solid before ultimately losing his place to Ofir Marciano, while Marc McNulty and Stephane Omeonga have been the two runaway successes.
McNulty, a deadline day arrival from Reading in January, has scored seven goals and won two Scotland caps in a remarkable four months in Leith. Omeonga, on loan from Genoa, has been a buzz-bomb in the heart of midfield, combining solid technique with a tireless work ethic, becoming an immediate fans’ favourite.
And Heckingbottom believes the progress of the pivotal pair will only help them attract more top talent next term.
“Stephane [Omeonga] is serious about being as good as he can be and he enjoys what he does,” lauded Heckingbottom. “I think that comes across when you see him and meet him. That is his stand out feature. He enjoys the challenge – a physical challenge and a mental challenge.
“There was a reason he came here, which was to progress his career and you can see that in him.
“Sparky [McNulty] has also come and done great. He’s a bit older but he is another who has got his rewards. He sacrificed because he wanted to come and play football and has two caps for Scotland now.
“If they are in the team and they perform as you hope, that makes our reputation even better and we are more likely to get the next one we want on loan.”
And Heckingbottom admits he has already made it clear to Omeonga that he wants to bring the Belgium under-21 internationalist back to Easter Road next season.
However, he is contracted to parent club Genoa until 2021 and they are currently embroiled in a fraught relegation fight in Serie A, rather complicating matters.
“We all know how well he has done,” continued Heckingbottom. “He knows that we want to keep him, improve him and help him to get better. I think that appeals to him.
“But they [Genoa] have their needs and you don’t know what will happen with their squad. Loan players are not our players. That is the difficulty.”