There can be several different reasons for a player to leave one football club to join another on loan. The most obvious, perhaps is for the individual to get more game time, while a chance for young players to develop in a less pressurised environment can be another. And sometimes, it can be part of an exit strategy; a way of putting a player deemed surplus to requirements at one club in the shop window for a future transfer. 

Reuben McAllister became the latest Hibs youngster to head out on loan this week, joining Kelty Hearts on a deal until the end of the season just days after Malek Zaid agreed a similar arrangement with fellow cinch League One side Edinburgh City. Not counting winger Emmanuel Johnson, who has just completed the 2023 MLS Next Pro season with American third-tier side Austin FC II, Hibs have 11 players out on loan in Belgium, England, and Scotland, with more expected to follow this month. Keeping an eye on them all involves in-person trips, video clips, and dialogue with representatives at the loan teams, as well as the players themselves. 

While Eddie May previously held the position of loans manager at Hibs, he now shares that responsibility with director of football Brian McDermott. Between the two of them, they keep a close eye on the players who are out on loan and, in May's words, 'try to look after the boys as much as possible'. 

Why do players go out on loan?

Given previous Easter Road managers haven't utilised youngsters to the same extent as Nick Montgomery, supporters could be forgiven for thinking that academy players heading out on loan is akin to being thrown on the scrap heap; their Hibs career over before it's started.

In terms of successful loans it's worth looking at the likes of Josh Campbell and Ryan Porteous, who both spent productive loan periods with Edinburgh City that propelled them to the first team; Porteous eventually going on to become a Scotland regular and sealing a move to English Championship side Watford, and Campbell becoming an important, and regular first-team player under Lee Johnson and earning links with Serie A teams. Josh Doig, too, enjoyed a fruitful stint at Queen's Park before unseating Lewis Stevenson from his Easter Road left-back throne and winning a move to Hellas Verona in Serie A. 

Hibs Observer: Josh Campbell enjoyed a productive spell on loan from Hibs at Edinburgh CityJosh Campbell enjoyed a productive spell on loan from Hibs at Edinburgh City (Image: SNS Group)

Increasingly in football, we are seeing clubs develop links with other teams; either through shared ownership or informal partnerships such as the one between Chelsea and Vitesse Arnhem that led to the Dutch side being jokingly christened 'Chelsea B' such were the numbers of Blues players making their way to the Netherlands. Hibs, too, have had similar partnerships with Civil Service Strollers, Edinburgh City, Stenhousemuir, and Charleston Battery in the United States (we won't talk about the Brighton link).

But while it may be less personalised at bigger clubs, who have a need to get huge numbers of youngsters or non-first-teamers out on loan, May paints the act of finding the right loan club for a player as an intricate process. But while a lot of work can go into selecting a team that will suit a certain individual, it doesn't always work out. 

“First and foremost, you’re trying to find a team to suit the player's needs," he told the Hibs Observer in an exclusive interview4. "I believe that if you’re a defender you need to go to a team that’s going to be tested, so you might not go to the best team in the league. It’s different if you’re a forward - you want centre-forwards or wide players to go into attacking teams that have more opportunities to win games. 

“It’s about trying to find the best fit for the player. It doesn’t always work out, which isn’t a disaster. You have to go on a journey and get used to the negativity of it all. You need to get your mindset right. Whether someone develops into a top player or not often comes down to mindset, mentality, and strength of character, rather than ability or physicality," he adds.

The 'harsh reality' of loan moves

There is always the risk of a player joining a club on loan but largely making up numbers on the bench and not getting a chance to develop on the pitch. May admits such scenarios are 'the harsh reality' of the process.

"You hear a lot of people saying things like, ‘if he can’t get a game for a certain team then he’s never going to play for Hibs'. I disagree with that. A player might not be playing for Hibs because there’s a very good calibre of player in front of him, or behind him. It’s not to do with him being unsuccessful somewhere else. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about how to develop players but there’s no exact science to it," he says. 

"We try to give players the whole package and try to get them to be the player they can be but if it doesn’t go well, we move on and try something a little bit different with the next loan. Players have to find a way to go and play different tactics and styles, rather than just playing the way that Hibs want to play at that given time."

'They're human beings, not numbers'

Since Montgomery took the reins at Easter Road, the club's academy teams have been playing a style that mirrors that of the first team - largely so that any players coming into the senior squad know what is expected of them, as evidenced by Rory Whittaker, Rudi Molotnikov, and Josh Landers playing a part in the first team and not looking out of place. But May feels encouraging players to go and experience a different formation, or tactical approach, can aid their development. Not that anyone is forced to go on loan, however.

“If the player says no to a loan move, then that’s that. He won’t be forced," May states. "You shouldn’t force a player to go and play somewhere they don’t want to. All you’re trying to do is help them to make the right decision for their career at that given time. 

“Sometimes a player will go into the first team right away, sometimes he needs a loan or two to go and be the player he can be. There are different journeys for different players. Everybody at the club should have a value at the same level, whether they’re the best player in the team, or just coming into the club. Too many times, people think football players are just a number. They are human beings, with feelings, and they want to be the best they can be. We have to be part of that and take responsibility, along with them, to help them be the best they can be. Sometimes that falls through and you have to reflect and say, ‘What can we do better?’"

Why Airdrie and Queen of the South are a good fit

One player who is attracting attention for his performances on loan is Kanayo Megwa at Airdrie. The versatile defender, comfortable at centre-back in a three or four, right-back, or right-wingback, has been earning rave reviews for Rhys McCabe's outfit, leading to calls for him to be given a chance in the Easter Road first team - particularly given 16-year-old Rory Whittaker is the sole senior right-back available at the moment, with Lewis Miller on international duty and Chris Cadden still working his way back to fitness after an Achilles injury. Megwa shares the Diamonds dressing room with Hibs colleagues Murray Aiken - currently sidelined through injury - and Josh O'Connor, while goalkeeper Murray Johnson also spent time on loan with the club last season. 

Hibs Observer: Kanayo Megwa in action for AirdrieKanayo Megwa in action for Airdrie (Image: SNS Group)

There's a very straightforward reason why Hibs are happy to send so many prospects to the Excelsior Stadium.

“Airdrie are a possession-based team who pass the ball - maybe even over-pass it at times," May explains. "We’re trying to get the players who are there to be more technical than they were, under pressure, in a team that’s playing one step below the Premiership. That’s why they are there."

Left-back Oscar MacIntyre and centre-back Kyle McClelland are with Queen of the South until the end of the season and Johnson would be with them, had a goalkeeping injury crisis not prompted Hibs to recall him from a season-long loan at Palmerston after just one appearance - a clean sheet in a League Cup group victory over Elgin City at Borough Briggs. Last season goalkeeper Kevin Dąbrowski had a successful loan spell with the Doonhamers, while Jack Brydon joined on a permanent basis as one of Marvin Bartley's first signings.

"The two at Queen of the South this season, that came about because Marvin has a connection with Hibs and really liked the two players, so they got an opportunity to go and showcase their ability. Queens were in the Championship for a number of years and have just drifted out of the division over the last couple of years, but they’re still full-time," May says.

Hibs Observer: Kyle McClelland in action for Queen of the SouthKyle McClelland in action for Queen of the South (Image: SNS Group)

"So it’s made a big difference for those five players because they’ve gone out to clubs who are full-time, rather than heading to a part-time team. It can be challenging with the part-time teams. You have to get the right style. In this day and age, more managers are getting sacked than ever. It’s all about results, and when that's all that matters, how many are going to play young players? Not many. You have to get the right balance and the right connection with the clubs to allow the players to move forward."

'Strollers are a good first step for players'

Another club to have benefited from a partnership with Hibs is Civil Service Strollers of the Lowland League. Led by Gary Jardine, who had a spell as a youth coach with Hibs in between managing Edinburgh City and Strollers, the Christie Gillies Park side represents a good 'first step' for burgeoning footballers.

“The Strollers link-up came from Gary. He’s done extremely well with Hibs players over the years - Aaron Dunsmore, Lewis Allan, Ryan Porteous, Sean Mackie - and he’s helped them progress as young players and they’ve gone on to do very, very well," May said. 

“Strollers are an Edinburgh club and you always want to support that. It’s a good vehicle, a good first step for players. It might not be a glamorous place but it’s well-organised, well-run, and they take care of the players. They’ve adjusted the way they play and over the years they’ve got better in terms of playing technical football and hopefully, we can keep helping them."

Youth League versus regular SPFL games

Last year, Hibs took part in the UEFA Youth League, an under-19 version of the Champions League, after romping to the CAS Elite Under-18 League title the previous campaign. Led by Steve Kean and Gareth Evans, the wee Hibees disposed of Norwegian side Molde and Nantes of France before a narrow and late defeat by Borussia Dortmund in the play-off round. While May accepts the continental jaunt had its benefits, his personal belief is that there is more to be gained by playing regular football against SPFL sides rather than a handful of games against the same age group.

Hibs Observer: Murray Aiken takes on Nnamdi Collins of Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Youth LeagueMurray Aiken takes on Nnamdi Collins of Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Youth League (Image: SNS Group)

“If you’re asking me, I think players are better off playing regularly in the football league against men, rather than a couple of games against other 16, 17-year-olds.

"If they’d won that competition, would any of them be playing in the Hibs first team? That’s what you have to ask yourself, and I genuinely think the answer would be no. I feel it was the wrong vehicle but at the same time, I have to be respectful of the fact that they earned the right to play in that competition and showcase the best of Hibernian FC.

"What Gareth and Steve did was very good for Hibs in terms of publicity and showcasing what we had. The downside was that some of the guys might have benefited from being out on loan and by this point would be a wee bit further down the line after playing against men week in, week out."

May points to Scotland Under-19 cap Johnson, who had to cut short his loan deal with Airdrie in order to play in the Youth League, with competition rules preventing players from representing their parent club as well as loan sides.

"Murray was playing for Airdrie before the Youth League started, he got player of the month, and then didn’t play another first-team game that season because of the rules. I still maintain that he might have been better off playing first-team games out on loan - but I do understand why Steve and Gareth wanted to go down the route they did."

What does the future hold for loanees?

What will become of the 11 players currently out on loan? As May points out, not every loan is the same - and it's hard to know what the future holds when some moves were arranged during a previous regime with the current management having had limited contact with the players.

“You have to have a good relationship with the clubs. Sometimes players go out on loan, and it’s en route to leaving Hibs. Not every player is going out on loan to come back and play," May says. "There are a couple of players who Hibs bought currently out on loan and it will be interesting to see how they develop. They’ve got 18 months left on their contract but it remains to be seen if they come back to Hibs, or if they go out on loan again and end up never really playing for the club."

The recent decision to create a development squad plus certain recruitment calls left the club with a bloated playing pool last season and although some players moved on, six permanent managers in just five years with a desire to play their own brand of football and bring in their own players has left the club with a Frankenstein squad of players from different regimes and as a result, many outgoing loans from Hibs in recent times have been a way of freeing up space in the squad and stretching the budget.

While May and McDermott are charged with looking after the players out on loan, their influence is limited. Whether or not players are given a first-team chance depends on the manager. For some, a change in head coach can be a death knell; for others, a fresh start - something Montgomery has already spoken about for those in the Easter Road first-team squad.

Hibs Observer: Nick Montgomery with 16-year-old right-back Rory WhittakerNick Montgomery with 16-year-old right-back Rory Whittaker (Image: SNS Group)

"Managers always want better; they want first-team starters," May continues. "Nick has played a lot of younger players already but Shaun [Maloney] and Jack [Ross] were both a wee bit restricted and didn’t. The one who did play them, perhaps ironically, was Neil Lennon - who some people say didn’t develop players. But he gave a lot of players their debut and trusted youngsters to go on the park and deliver for the team. It's not really been the same since because of all the changes. That makes it difficult for loan players because it’s hard to showcase what they’ve got; it’s always the here and now."

Pre-season challenge

Some of the Hibs-contracted players out on loan have recall clauses, but Montgomery might be prepared to wait until the end of the season before making a decision on certain players, as May explains.

“If the manager doesn't call them back this window, you’re looking at everybody coming back for pre-season and if a player isn’t in the plans then, that’s when it becomes really challenging and that’s when they might start an exit programme, rather than a loan with a view to progressing as a Hibs player. If you’re open and honest with the players, then it can go a long way. They might not agree with you but I think it helps to get their mindset right to move somewhere else where they can play regular football."

During his time as head coach of the Hibs development team, May led his young charges to a league and cup double. Fourteen of the squad - Dąbrowski, Porteous, Mackie, Kevin Waugh, Innes Murray, Josh Campbell, Fraser Murray, Ben Stirling, Oli Shaw, Jamie Gullan, Paddy Martin, Ruari Paton, Callum Crane, and Ryan Shanley - are, or at least until fairly recently were, still plying their trade in the SPFL or, in Porteous' case, the EFL.

Hibs Observer: Hibs won a youth league and cup double in 2017/18Hibs won a youth league and cup double in 2017/18 (Image: SNS Group)

“All you want is young guys to go out and be the best they can be and even if it’s not for Hibs, you can still give them a career in football. When I was coaching the development team at Hibs, the team that won the double - I think 13 or 14 of them are still playing professional football at different levels, which is phenomenal."

Is the tide turning at Hibs?

The introduction of a director of football who places an importance on a player's character as well as their footballing ability and suitability has made a difference. So too has the appointing of a manager who not only has a track record of bringing through youngsters but has the magic touch when it comes to maverick or marginalised players.

At Hibs it has always been the case that the success of the academy is not measured solely on how many players progress to the first team, but also on how many of the youngsters grow as people, and if they remain in football - hence May's comment about the 2017/18 development squad. Not every player out on loan at the moment will come back and be in Montgomery's plans. There remains a chance that, with regular games, some of them could be given an opportunity to impress in green and white. For the ones who don't, Hibs will seek to find the best possible outcome for their future - whatever that may look like.

“We’ve got some good young players at Hibs at the moment, but not all of them are going to hit the ground running at the same time," May says.

"Hopefully, their loan spells can help them progress as people, as well as football players."