With the summer fast approaching, along with the expiration of David Marshall's contract, it would be understandable if full focus was on the acquisition of a new Hibs goalkeeper, capable of taking over the gloves from the former Scotland shot-stopper, who has enjoyed a far better campaign than last season.

It cannot be overstated how important a role this is. In the modern game, goalkeepers don't just save shots, they can win you matches. They can register assists. In some teams, their role is more akin to that of a temporary eleventh outfield player. Gone are the days of roll-neck jerseys, bunnets, and bare hands.  Today's 'keeper has to be comfortable with the ball at his feet, strong in distribution, commanding in the air and his penalty box, and capable of starting attacks. The all-important spine of any team starts with the man in the sticks. 

READ MORE - 6 options to succeed Marshall: From Premiership standout to left-field prospect

Hibs fans of a certain vintage will remember John Hughes and his efforts to establish a 'school of goalkeepers' at Easter Road during his time in charge; the arrival of Mark Brown from Celtic during the final days of the 2010 winter transfer window bringing the number of senior custodians on the books to four. Graham Stack, Graeme Smith, and Yves Ma-Kalambay played 23, 15, and seven games respectively during the 2009/10 campaign but Brown didn't play once in the second half of that season, having to wait until the following campaign to play 28 times under Hughes and his successor Colin Calderwood. 

Discussing his idea, Hughes explained: "For the last seven to eight years, I don't think we've really had that goalkeeping school at Hibs. I sat down with the board of directors and I said, 'Let's go and get that goalkeeping school once and for all'. Yogi's claim that his quartet of shot-stoppers 'could be the envy of Scottish football', was bold to say the least, and it would be appropriate to say that there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of evidence to support his statement. 

During the following season, which saw Hughes leave by mutual consent in October to be replaced by Calderwood, Brown was arguably the first choice with Stack making seven appearances, Smith six, and Czech loanee Jakub Divis taking the gloves on three occasions. A tenth-placed finish, even under a different manager, suggested few lessons had been learned from the goalkeeping school - a case of four not going into one, perhaps. 

Fast forward nearly 15 years and Hibs are in a similar position now, numerically speaking at least, with four goalkeepers on the books with senior experience - although there has been no talk of an educational institution comprising David Marshall, who has played 3,500+ minutes in all competitions this season and whose contract is up in the summer; Jojo Wollacott, who has struggled to dislodge Marshall and whose deal runs until the end of the 2025/26 campaign; Max Boruc, contracted to the summer of 2025 and currently on loan at Arbroath, with three sub appearances for his parent club under his belt; and Murray Johnson, who has a deal running until the end of the 2026/27 season but just 1,350 minutes of competitive action at club level - a third of which came during Hibs' UEFA Youth League campaign last season. 

READ MORE - Hibs and the top six: an uninspiring yet vitally important scenario

Out of the quartet, the highly-rated Johnson is the most curious one. He rose to prominence when he signed professional terms with Hibs in January 2021 before being promoted to backup under Lee Johnson, following Ryan Schofield's return to parent club Huddersfield in January 2023. The publication of Hibs most recent accounts laid bare the financial push made that same month in a bid to secure European football, which was ultimately successful. But was Johnson promoted to second choice because his performances in training deserved it? Was it to give him sustained first-team exposure? Or was it in the hope that Marshall could stay fit and having a youngster as backup ‘keeper would help in a financial sense? Whichever it was, the following month Johnson signed a new four-year deal at Easter Road. Tying down such a well-regarded prospect was seen as good business at the time, particularly in the wake of interest from clubs in England.

Since then? A total of 22 unused substitute appearances for the Hibs first team; six loan appearances for Airdrieonians in League One; five games in the UEFA Youth League; three outings in the SPFL Trust Trophy across three seasons; a solitary League Cup game for loan side Queen of the South, and a handful of appearances in friendly matches, bounce games, and reserve fixtures for Hibs with no real consistency to his selection.

With Hibs gearing up for a busy summer on the recruitment front, particularly in terms of goalkeepers - depending on what happens with Marshall, Wollacott, and Boruc - Johnson is at something of a crossroads. So what are his options?

Leave the club for game time

There has been no shortage of interest from other teams in Johnson since he signed his professional contract with Hibs. He was said to be close to joining Wolves in 2021 for a six-figure fee and also spent time training with Manchester City, but remained at Easter Road. Perhaps the biggest question is: if Johnson did decide to move on this summer, would he still have the same string of suitors as before? You would imagine at least some will remain interested - if he was a free-scoring striker who suddenly found the goals had dried up it might well be a different story but his talent, potential for improvement, and eye-catching performances for Airdrie and regular involvement at international level won't have gone unnoticed. 

There are a lot of spinning plates at Easter Road regarding goalkeepers. Even if Marshall departs and Wollacott and Boruc stay on; as things stand, Johnson would appear to be third choice, which is where he finds himself currently. If Wollacott and Boruc stay on, and a new first-choice 'keeper is signed, Johnson would be even further down the pecking order. At some point you’d imagine he will have a conversation with Miguel Miranda and Nick Montgomery with a view to influencing his decision. 

READ MORE - Hibs' forward line analysed: what is Nick Montgomery's best front three?

In addition, the goalkeeper and many of his Hibee colleagues were arguably hindered by strict UEFA guidelines that banned players from competing in the Youth League while featuring for a loan club and while the experience of travelling to Norway and France to face Molde and Nantes, and hosting Borussia Dortmund at Easter Road in front of nearly 10,000 fans will have been memorable, and almost certainly something the players wouldn't have changed for the world, there is a sneaking suspicion that the governing body's rules might have impeded, or stalled, the progress of some players. 

Johnson may feel a fresh start is the correct move; a transfer to a club in which he will be higher up the food chain. That's not to say he can't or won't have that at Hibs, but after a brief but successful six-game loan spell with the Diamonds last season during which he won the club's player of the month award, and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it stint with Queen of the South this season, it would be understandable if he was prioritising a greater chance of game time at this stage in his career. 

It's worth pointing out that the premature end to his short-lived stint with the Doonhamers was due to circumstances outwith his control: a pre-match setback for Marshall was followed by an in-game injury to Wollacott during the 6-1 Europa Conference League victory over Andorrans Inter Club d'Escaldes, and Johnson was recalled and named on the bench for the away legs against Luzern and Aston Villa. But his next matchday squad involvement wasn't until January 2 against Motherwell, when he was named as the backup goalie with Wollacott at the Africa Cup of Nations with Ghana and Boruc tipped to head out on loan. He was named on the bench for a further three matches in January but Wollacott's earlier-than-expected return from the Côte d’Ivoire nudged Johnson out of the limelight once more.

Boruc’s eventual loan to Arbroath perhaps contributed to Hibs' decision not to send Johnson out on a temporary deal himself, as it would have left them with just two senior goalkeepers and while hardly injury-prone, by January Marshall had already been subbed off during two matches with knocks and had injured himself during the pre-match warm-up for a third, and it would hardly be a surprise if Hibs chiefs felt they needed backup in case of a recurrence or a more long-term injury, and having a third goalkeeper on the books would be far more straightforward than scrabbling around for a free agent on a short-term deal. 

The club has to come first, but it does feel as though Johnson has been particularly unlucky with the hand he has been dealt at each turn. 

Stay and push for a season-long loan deal

Johnson is under contract until the summer of 2027 and may feel that, despite recent experiences, he is better served by remaining at the club - but also pushing for a season-long loan deal with a Championship team. He was a big hit at Airdrie despite his lack of games, and likely would have benefited from the season of men's football in the SPFL that he hoped to get at Palmerston this term. 

One need only look at team-mates Kanayo Megwa and Josh O'Connor, who are playing a big part at Airdrie under Rhys McCabe, and Murray Aiken, who was impressing for the Diamonds before suffering a serious ankle injury that has kept him sidelined for several months, to see the benefits of a season-long loan deal. Jacob Blaney is another who is catching the eye at East Fife, making the SPFL team of the week for his performance in the 2-1 win against Stranraer last weekend. 

A season-long loan spell in the second tier could be a smart move for all parties. In terms of possible destinations, with Falkirk looking likely to seal the automatic promotion spot from League One, perhaps a stint working under John McGlynn could be a goer next season. Current Bairns No.1 Sam Long is due to return to parent club Lincoln City in the summer which would leave just one senior 'keeper on the books in Nicky Hogarth. While the former Rangers academy shot-stopper is still on the young side - he only turns 23 in July - a scenario in which he and Johnson vie for the starting slot at the Falkirk Stadium while testing themselves against Championship teams is hardly unthinkable and Falkirk haven't done too badly out of younger custodians in recent history.

Of course, this is just one scenario plucked out of several possibilities. Much depends on Falkirk's transfer plans, other teams, Johnson himself, and of course Hibs, who carefully pick and choose the appropriate loan side for their players and there will be numerous other factors at play as well. But if the 19-year-old does have designs on heading out on loan, it feels as though it needs to be a move to a solid team where he can build up minutes, continue his development, potentially force his way back into the international set-up, and return to Hibs a better player. 

A lot will hinge on what Hibs are planning to do in the summer transfer window. Due in part to his lack of senior minutes, Johnson probably isn't quite ready to play backup to a No.1 at Easter Road - be it Marshall, Wollacott, or a newcomer - despite deputising for Marshall in 2023 but could Montgomery put his faith in a youngster once more? We know the former Central Coast Mariners head coach isn’t afraid to trust young players and actively wants to bring them through the ranks and involve them at senior level, and when one considers how many academy figures have been handed debuts under Montgomery this season, Johnson may yet fancy his chances of convincing the head coach to give him a similar opportunity. Indeed, his performance against Raith Rovers last week in Lewis Vaughan's testimonial was that of a player trying to catch the eye, rather than following the testimonial script and allowing the man of the moment to get his customary goal. 

But at the same time, the ‘keeper has his own career to think about and listening to him fulfilling media duties during the Youth League campaign, he comes across as a driven, ambitious individual with a maturity belying his tender years, and that could play a part in his decision-making too. The likes of Rory Mahady, who swapped Celtic for Leeds or Callan McKenna who joined Bournemouth after coming through the ranks at Queen's Park (after playing age-group football for Hibs, coincidentally) show that clubs are willing to offer young goalies a chance to progress, albeit both moved on from their Scottish clubs at a younger age than Johnson is now. 

The next few months could well be vital for Johnson's career. With planning for summer recruitment already underway at Hibs, having an early indication of what next season could hold will likely help him make a decision. He need only look to former colleague Kevin Dabrowski and how he has settled in at Stark's Park for a glimpse of what life might be like away from Easter Road but at the same time, the Pole had spent a considerable amount of time playing backup to the likes of Adam Bogdan, Ofir Marciano, Matt Macey, and Marshall before deciding to move on after six senior appearances in six years interspersed with five loan spells, so the two situations are not entirely comparable, although there are similarities. 

As things stand, Johnson is heading for a crossroads with several options. But which route will he take?