There has been plenty of interest around Hibs' inclusion in billionaire Bournemouth owner Bill Foley's Black Knight footballing network, and understandably so. It's all a bit 'brave new world' but there is also, perhaps, some trepidation over what the move means for the Easter Road side. 

While Hibs are unlikely to experience the full benefits of being part of a multi-club structure until further down the line, it has been suggested that all teams under the Black Knight umbrella - the Cherries; FC Lorient, recently relegated to France's Ligue 2; Hibs, and A-League expansion side Auckland - will share best practices in a bid to help the group become stronger collectively and individually, which makes sense - greater than the sum of its parts, for instance. 

READ MORE - Hibs shareholder Bill Foley reveals what drives his investments

Given Bournemouth's place at the top of the structure's food chain, there have unsurprisingly been concerns that this whole project will end up benefiting the Vitality Stadium side at the expense of the other teams. Foley has repeatedly insisted that he has no desire to replicate the City Football Group (CFG) and is keen for all the Black Knight-linked teams to be as successful as possible but it stands to reason that, as the flagship club, Bournemouth will be at the top of his priorities. That doesn't necessarily mean favouring them over the others but it could be a useful carrot for some players that if they impress in France or Scotland it might just net them a route to the English Premier League. 

It's a partnership Jim, but not as we know it...

Hibs fans may also be wondering what to make of yet another partnership-type situation. As far back as 2005 Hibs were in talks with Chelsea about a proposed link-up that would allow for a possible player exchange, but it never really got off the ground. In May 2021 Brighton and Hibs announced a 'strategic partnership' that would primarily focus on player development... and then six months later newly-installed chief executive Ben Kensell stated that he 'hadn't seen any evidence' of the supposed partnership, just a couple of months after the Seagulls played Rangers in a friendly at Ibrox and sent loan players to Aberdeen, Hearts, and St Johnstone. 

A more tangible link with Stenhousemuir that resulted in a handful of younger players heading to Ochilview to further their development in the lower echelons of the SPFL ended some time ago, although Hibs are still happy to furnish the Warriors with loan players on the same basis as other clubs. A link with USL Championship side Charleston Battery hasn't really produced much since highly-rated Mexican youth internationalist Fidel Barajas, now with MLS side Real Salt Lake, had a training stint with the Hibs development squad in late 2022 shortly after EJ Johnson spent time on loan in South Carolina.

Loans manager Eddie May, speaking exclusively to the Hibs Observer in January, confirmed that the right club would be sought for specific players rather than shipping several off to the same club purely because of an existing relationship.

READ MORE - Hibees on loan: the process, the reasons and preferred clubs

“First and foremost, you’re trying to find a team to suit the player's needs," he said. "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. 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."

Hibs retain an informal arrangement with Lowland League side Civil Service Strollers that allows youth players to get a first taste of senior football under the tutelage of former Hibs academy coach Gary Jardine at Christie Gillies Park but beyond that, the age of strategic partnerships appears to be dead.

Black Knight benefits

But could the club's involvement in the Black Knight group see them get the best bits of a partnership without the hassle? We have already seen some evidence of this - in January, Nathan Moriah-Welsh signed on a permanent deal from the Cherries, and Emiliano Marcondes arrived on loan. Welsh youth internationalist Owen Bevan was due to sign on for the remainder of the season as well until injury scuppered the loan deal, but Easter Road chiefs remain keen to bring him to the capital next season. 

Hibs are unlikely to be scouring Foley's latest acquisition, Auckland FC, for any signings just yet given the New Zealand-based side are planning for their maiden campaign in the Australian top flight. But, with an emphasis on player pathways as part of the wider Black Knight philosophy, there remains a chance that we could see Hibs players heading to the A-League, or Kiwis coming to Scotland in the not-too-distant future. Lorient's situation remains unclear following their relegation to Ligue 2 but it's another potential pathway.

Crucially, though, there is a clearly defined structure for all the Black Knight teams and it looks like more than just coincidence that Hibs have returned to a model similar to the one put in place during the post-relegation reset of 2014.

Bournemouth have a manager, Andoni Iraola, and two first-team coaches (Tommy Elphick and Shaun Cooper) plus Neil Moss as head of goalkeeping, a first-team assistant goalkeeper coach in Gareth Stewart, and a first-team fitness coach (Pablo de la Torre) as well as two performance directors (Jay Mellette and Dave Gardner) tasked with overseeing sports science, medicine, nutrition, strength and conditioning, and performance and analysis. Foley serves as chairman with Neill Blake as chief executive and Jim Frevola in the president of business role, while recently-appointed president of football operations Tiago Pinto will likely sit on this level of the hierarchical pyramid as well. 

Lorient have president Loïc Féry at the top of their staffing pyramid with general director Arnaud Tanguy and sports coordinator Aziz Mady Mogne beneath him. Manager Régis Le Brin is supported by two assistant managers in Julien Outrebon and Ingo Goetze and two goalkeeping coaches. 

Hibs recently named Malky Mackay as the club's new sporting director, with the former Ross County boss overseeing all aspects of the footballing structure at the club from academy to sport science to first team. As covered extensively, Nick Montgomery's successor in the dugout will be a head coach, rather than a manager, and likely backed up by at least one, if not two, assistant head coaches and a goalkeeping coach.

No two teams have the same structure, nor do they share colours or similar crests as with the CFG (and on top of that, the Black Knights only outright own Bournemouth and Auckland) so there's next to no chance of Foley attempting to add a knight's visor to the Hibs badge, for instance.

READ MORE - Is Hibs shareholder Bill Foley close to buying Belgian team?

But it is interesting to consider the roles fulfilled by the various clubs in the Black Knight network. Bournemouth are the traditional underdog-made-good story with the platform to grow; Hibs are the historically successful yet recently mostly dormant giant; Lorient, the regionally if not nationally successful Breton outfit with a penchant for springboarding some of France's most successful players, and Auckland; the upstart newcomers aiming to flourish as just the third New Zealand-based side in the history of the A-League. On that basis it is easy to understand why Foley is mulling over an acquisition in Belgium or the Netherlands with a view to strengthening the collective and having a different type of club in the network.

How are Auckland getting on?

Auckland have so far installed a head coach and assistant head coach in Steve Corica and Danny Hay along with a head of football (Terry McFlynn) and a head of recruitment (Doug Kors). Upstairs, Foley serves as chairman, alongside a chief executive officer, Nick Becker, and Mike Higgins the chief commercial officer.

It would not be a surprise to see Pinto leading sporting director meetings attended by, among others, Mackay, Mady Mogne, and McFlynn as a way of sharing best practices and helping advance the different teams. 

READ MORE - What Tiago Pinto joining Bournemouth might mean for Hibs

What is interesting is the level and range of experience at Auckland, on both the footballing and the off-pitch sides of the business. It could be argued such knowledge is vital with the team still in its nascent stages.

Queensland-born Corica began his career with Marconi Stallions in Australia's now-defunct National Soccer League before spells with Leicester, Wolves, Sanfrecce Hiroshima in Japan, Walsall, and Sydney. He won caps for Australia at Under-17, Under-20, Under-23, and senior level. He spent eight years as youth and assistant coach at Sydney, mostly alongside current Socceroos manager Graham Arnold, before taking the top job in 2018 until 2023. He enjoyed a 47.78% win rate, working out at 1.68 points per game. 

His No.2 is long-time cohort Hay; an Auckland native who began his career in his homeland with Waitakere City and Central United before a stint at Perth Glory led to a move to Leeds, including an appearance against Barcelona at Camp Nou in the Champions League. He moved onto Walsall for a season before returning to New Zealand with Football Kingz, finishing his career with spells at New Zealand Knights, Perth Glory, and Waitakere United, and 31 international caps for the All-Whites. He got his first taste of coaching heading up the country's Under-17s before leading Eastern Suburbs to their first New Zealand championship title in nearly 50 years in 2019. He then managed the country's senior national team from 2019 until 2022 (eight wins, seven defeats, and one draw) and took charge of the Under-23s for two years at the same time. After a return to club management with Australian NPL side Perth SC, he joined up with Corica.

Head of football McFlynn began his sporting career as a Gaelic footballer before switching to football at the age of 16. He came through the ranks at QPR before spells with Woking, Margate, and Morecambe as well as caps for Northern Ireland at Under-19 and Under-21 level. In 2005 he moved to Australia to join Sydney FC and spent nine years there as a player before a brief stint with New South Wales Premier League side Bonnyrigg White Eagles after which he hung up the boots. While still playing for Sydney he studied for a Master's in coaching education and served as general manager of player welfare under Arnold. He eventually moved onto Perth Glory as director of academy operations before being announced as Auckland's director of football. McKenna played a key role in recruiting former team-mate Corica as head coach and will oversee recruitment, football operations, and the club's sports science department. 

Head of recruitment Kors had an interesting pathway into the field. A mere fan of Sydney FC as well as doing performance analysis for Australian rules side GWS Giants, he was contacted by Sky Blues chief executive Tony Pignata in December 2014 with a view to joining the club as their analysis guru, working alongside Graham Arnold. 

He impressed sufficiently to be offered the job on a full-time basis and has since gained a reputation as one of the leading, and pioneering, sports analysts in Australia, serving as general manager - football analysis, data, and insights for the country's governing body. At Auckland, he will once again be working with Corica after the pair linked up at Sydney. 

In terms of players, six have been signed at the time of writing with more to be added ahead of the curtain going up on the 2024/25 A-League season. Goalkeeper Michael Woud, an Auckland native with spells at Sunderland, Willem II and Almere City in the Netherlands, and Japanese teams Kyoto Sanga and Ventforet Kotu as well as 24 caps for New Zealand at youth level and two full caps; Canterbury native Francis de Vries, who has spent time in Switzerland, the United States, Canada, Sweden, as well as his homeland, for whom he has five international caps; 51-cap Kiwi international defender Tommy Smith, best known for his spells with Ipswich, Colorado Rapids, and Colchester as well as playing in Australia and New Zealand; former Burnley youngster Cam Howieson, who had spells with Doncaster, St Mirren, Team Wellington, and Auckland City and has 16 caps for the All-Whites; forward Jesse Randall, who hails from Wellington and played college football in the USA before spells in his homeland. He played for Charleston Battery last season before returning to New Zealand. The final signing so far is striker Max Mata, born in Auckland but with a nomadic career to date that has seen him go from Wellington Phoenix to Eastern Suburbs, to Grasshoppers in Switzerland, to Estonian side Nõmme Kalju on loan; to Real Monarchs in the USA, to Sligo Rovers in the League of Ireland Premier Division, and onto Shrewsbury Town in England before returning to Auckland via a return, on loan, to Sligo. 

CEO Becker has extensive experience having worked as sponsorship and events manager for O2 UK, head of events at Manchester City where he created the City Sq fanzone, marketing director with Melbourne City, and in sports and entertainment marketing with Wyld Comms in Melbourne. COO Higgins studied accounting, finance, and information systems at the University of Canterbury before serving as finance director for the Wellington-based digital marketing agency Touchcast NZ; and fulfilling CFO, COO, and CISO roles during a 20-year spell with the Clemenger Group media company, which focuses on advertising and marketing communications throughout Australia and New Zealand. 

Foley's links 

It's worth noting too that the head of ticketing and membership for Auckland spent 14 months working with Foley Family Wines and the finance manager currently serves Foley Hospitality as as group accountant, so there are links with the ownership as well as a big emphasis on having Auckland natives in key roles. Foley and his Black Knight cohorts could very easily visit Bournemouth, Hibs, and Lorient in the space of a week but with New Zealand being that little bit further away, there is an obvious upside to having trusted lieutenants in key positions. 

Not to get all three musketeers, although the constant references to knights isn't helping diminish the medieval ambience, but it feels very much like each individual club can act for the benefit of the group (as well as themselves), and the group will act for the benefit of every individual. Hibs and their respective teams should be able to reap the benefits from being part of the Black Knight network while also helping to strengthen the other teams by sharing their best practices and collaborating on player trading. 

There's a chance it wouldn't just be players who could move between clubs in the network. Kors' extensive scouting knowledge of the A-League could be useful for all clubs in the group while Corica has an impressive coaching resumé so far but may fancy moving overseas at some point to continue his career. 

With Mackay getting settled into his sporting director role, a new head coach on the cusp of being appointed, and a club-wide desire to leave behind the trials and tribulations of the previous season and start on a path towards sustained success and a better financial situation there will be plenty going on at Hibs this summer, never mind in the background with the Black Knight network.

But whichever way you look at it, it's unlikely to be dull - and Hibs should at least get something out of the arrangement this time.