"Away end unreal, six games unbeaten. Togetherness! We keep working." Ten heartfelt words written on Instagram by Rocky Bushiri to accompany a picture of him at Tynecastle last weekend celebrating Élie Youan's equaliser with the Hibs fans spilling out of the School End.

The last time he was at the same stadium he was an unused substitute in the stormy 1-1 draw at the end of last season, earning himself a red card for his part in the post-match scuffle on the pitch. Speaking from the club's Spanish training base during the summer he insisted he would always stand up for his team-mates. Clearly that 'togetherness' has been there for a while, as far as the Belgian-born stopper is concerned.

It doesn't feel like a stretch to describe Bushiri as one of Nick Montgomery's two first-choice centre-backs but yet there is an unshakeable feeling that some sections of the Hibs support just can't quite take to the defender. Whether it stems from his difficult start to life at Easter Road, or the supporters' familiarity with defensive stalwart, captain, and boyhood Hibee Paul Hanlon, or other reasons is unclear. But after a season and a half of being in and out of the team for various reasons, his place in the starting XI appears to be, for the moment at least, in no doubt.

That appearance against Hearts was just his 33rd league outing since joining Hibs in January 2022 from Norwich City, initially on loan, during Shaun Maloney's tenure. He might have had more games under his belt were it not for injuries and, previously, the form of Ryan Porteous, but new manager Nick Montgomery has seen in the player something he likes, describing his partnership with Will Fish as 'very good'.

The 23-year-old has started four of the former Central Coast Mariners head coach's five games in charge and while he has made way for Hanlon in three of those matches, it has looked like a primarily tactical decision in every instance. In terms of game knowledge Hanlon is streets ahead of his defensive colleague due to having far more experience. But the younger player perhaps unsurprisingly has pace that Hanlon lacks, and the combination of playing Bushiri for 75 minutes and Hanlon for 15 to see games out has worked so far for Hibs and Montgomery. 

Yet some Hibs fans remain unconvinced by the manager's decision to retain faith in the former Canaries youngster; perhaps a throwback to his first involvement in Maloney's team when he was playing senior football for the first time in a while and, by his own admission, wasn't entirely 100 per cent fit. 

But even previous manager Lee Johnson, who admitted he would have been happy to see Bushiri move on, changed his tune pretty sharpish and praised the former KV Oostende youngster for his progress - as well as rather memorably slapping a hefty price-tag on the player's head.

“We drilled him and he has been a good student. When I looked back at his history, someone told me that for two years, he hadn’t trained on three consecutive days on the spin. When I first walked through the door, he was one I was probably happy to move on. Now I wouldn’t let him go for £10 million," Johnson said in October last year. 

Bushiri is the type of player who is keen to improve and do whatever he can to be better. During the off-season, when the players are afforded time off before returning for the gruelling tests of pre-season, there are nearly always social media posts showing him toting weights and putting in the hard yards on the treadmill.

He turns 24 at the end of next month. But there is a feeling that in terms of his development and progress, he is still playing catch-up, and Johnson's reference to a lack of consecutive training days over such a long period of time may be part of that. But the rise of late bloomers in football is better documented than it once was, and there's no reason why Bushiri can't join that particular club in the game. On top of that, a quick search on social media reveals a sharp decrease in the number of posts branding him a 'bombscare'. Perhaps the mood is changing. 

So 12 months on from being showered with praise by Johnson, and with a new manager now in charge as well as hopes of more appearances for Congo DR during this international break, how is Bushiri faring - and just how much has he improved?

Key metrics boosted under Montgomery

If we look back to his performance against Livingston in Johnson’s final match in charge, he was played as the left-sided centre-back in an attacking 4-3-3 formation, partnering Will Fish at the heart of defence with Jordan Obita outside him at left-back and Riley Harbottle somewhat unexpectedly deployed at right-back. 

While Bushiri's passing was impressive with a 92% success rate according to StatsBomb, his aerial win percentage was less so, with just a 33% success rate - well below the league average for this season so far. Bushiri also had fewer pressures (5.37) in the 3-2 defeat compared to the league average of 8.00 per 90 minutes. In terms of fouls committed he was roughly on a par with the league average, and also recorded a higher-than-average number of interceptions. 

To assess him under Montgomery's tutelage it is important to remember two key things. One, it's a small sample size and two, he's being asked to approach games differently in a tactical sense. But his numbers against Hearts offer a lot of hope, not just for Hibs fans and the head coach, but for Bushiri as well. 

Just as Kilmarnock did in Montgomery's first match in charge, Hearts seemed content to allow Bushiri to be in possession, anticipating that he would struggle on the ball and potentially allow them a turnover. But Bushiri, statistically speaking, recorded one of his best performances in a Hibs shirt at Tynecastle, despite the loud jeering from the home fans every time he touched the ball. He outperformed the league average in every key metric - from fouls committed (none) to his pass success rate (86% compared to an average of 75%), to his aerial win percentage (83% compared to 67%). And while there was one notable wayward header in the first half that spiralled out of play rather than finding a team-mate when he wasn't under any pressure, there wasn't a lot in the way of obvious errors or mistakes. He's also committing far fewer fouls on average than last season. 


When comparing Bushiri's numbers from the 2023/24 campaign to date with the 15 league outings he made last season, the most noteworthy change is his pass success rate. While as mentioned it's a small sample size, he has shot up from 84% to 92%.

Now most of his passes will be to or from David Marshall as part of Hibs' building from the back but he also picked out Obita and Joe Newell with three passes each, and Élie Youan with two; one of which was a pass that led to the Frenchman having an off-target effort on goal - Bushiri's first key pass of the campaign.

He also completed one pass each to Youan's fellow forwards Christian Doidge and Dylan Vente and in the second half he again played three passes to Obita as well as three to Fish and two to Newell. The passing network diagrams below show that during the first half, Bushiri was more involved than in the second, with a lot of the build-up play starting with him receiving the ball from Marshall. So while his passing statistics may be artificially inflated by knocking it about at the back, the number of times he was picking out an attacker against Hearts, coupled with that key pass for Youan's attempt on goal, suggests that with ongoing coaching and trust from the coaching staff, he will only get better with the ball at his feet. 

Can Hibs gametime help Leopards chances?

Congo DR take on New Zealand in an international friendly on Friday in Murcia. Bushiri, having made his Leopards debut against South Africa last month, will hope for further gametime under manager Sébastien Desabre against the All-Whites and again next week when they play Angola in another friendly encounter in Lisbon. His appearances for Hibs could mean a greater chance of involvement in the double-header, with Desabre having form for rotation during friendlies.

In terms of who starts against New Zealand and Angola, Marseille centre-back Chancel Mbemba looks a nailed-on starter, having made 12 appearances for the Ligue 1 side in all competitions, while Dylan Batubinsika has played ten times for Saint-Étienne in the French second tier and Henoc Inonga is playing regularly for Tanzanian Premier League side Simba SC. Bushiri's ten games for Hibs including gametime against Aston Villa and Luzern in Europe may see him nudge ahead of Inonga in the pecking order.

The next test

The upcoming league games against Rangers and Celtic will be another test of Bushiri and how his game has developed in the last few weeks. While club captain Paul Hanlon has shown in recent appearances that he still has a lot to offer, he turns 34 in January and with Will Fish due to head back to Manchester United in the summer, Montgomery will be acutely aware of the need to plan for the future at the heart of defence. 

Last weekend's derby was just Bushiri's 109th senior career appearance. For comparison, Dylan Levitt (22) has already made 84 appearances while Lewis Miller has 87 despite just turning 23. Josh Campbell is already on 145 appearances and doesn't turn 24 until May while Dylan Vente has 161 games under his belt having only just turned 24 himself in May. Ryan Porteous, meanwhile, had 161 senior appearances when he left Hibs for Watford at the age of 23 last January. 

Bushiri has a real chance to continue developing under Montgomery and the head coach's approach to man-management and trust could have a big effect on the centre-back. With such a small sample size under the Englishman there seems little point in scrutinising the defender's statistics too much, but he certainly seems to be on an upward trajectory. 

He is far from the finished article, but he also isn't the hapless centre-back some seem to think he is - but it's also hard to judge a player on a handful of games here and there. During the 2018/19 campaign Bushiri made 31 league appearances for KAS Eupen in the Belgian Jupiler Pro League, and this season he could either match, or come close to matching it, for the first time since. If he can get a consistent run of games this season under Montgomery's guidance, it could paint a more conclusive picture about where he's at in terms of his development - and show exactly why the manager is so keen to help him flourish.