THE No 4 he wears once belonged to Hibernian legends Pat Stanton and Franck Sauzee, but while that illustrious pair were never far from the spotlight, Paul Hanlon has quietly gone about amassing 200 appearances for the Easter Road club.
The central defender was a boyhood supporter of the club and remembers the last time Hibs dropped to the second tier of Scottish football. During that 1998-99 season in the old First Division he was awestruck by the classy French No 4 who arrived at Easter Road and helped the club return to the top flight in a blaze of glory.
“I wasn’t a season-ticket holder, but I went to most of the games that season,” he said. “I was only nine. I can vaguely remember the day they got relegated. I just remember it was a great team then. They made some great signings – Sauzee, [Russell] Latapy, guys who went on to become legends for this club.
“Sauzee was my favourite Hibs player growing up. It’s great to be able to wear the No 4 he had. But that’s not why I have it. The four was available and I quite liked the number, that was it really.”
Hanlon was a reluctant spectator last season when injury forced him on to the sidelines as Hibs hurtled towards relegation. It was a painful experience, and he is desperate to restore the club to the Premiership at the first opportunity.
A sticky start to the season has already made it a sizeable task, but Monday’s stunning 3-1 victory at Ibrox was a giant leap in the right direction and was a personal milestone for Hanlon who celebrated his double-century of appearances in style. His 201st game will be at home to Raith Rovers today.
“I started thinking about it last season,” Hanlon said. “I thought: ‘I really want to get to 200’. It was case of trying to play well and stay in the team every week and take it from there, really.”
Hanlon was one of several stand-out performers at Ibrox as manager Alan Stubbs’ system of three central defenders clicked perfectly into place, with Jordon Forster and Liam Fontaine also outstanding at the back for Hibs. “The 3-5-2 feels good. We feel solid and compact, and the way we’re hitting teams on the break is good,” said Hanlon. “You could see that at Ibrox: the goals came from quick movements up the pitch and we’re catching teams out. Hopefully it continues, but it all starts from having a solid base at the back.
“Until the Ross County [League Cup] game I’d never played in a 3-5-2 before, apart from late on in games when we were pushing for a win. I’d never started in one before since I’ve been a defender. So it was new, but it’s working well.”
Two of Hibs’ goals at Ibrox were scored by Jason Cummings and the irrepressible young forward has been a hot topic this week after another entertaining post-match interview.
The self-confident Cummings opined he had shown the “touch of an angel” to control the ball before his first goal, and Hanlon laughed: “No-one’s really slagged him off that much. It was more ‘What did he say this time?’ To be fair, it was a great touch and we’re all delighted for him. He works hard.
“He can get a bit of stick at times and what he says can be taken the wrong way at times, but he’s harmless. He’s just a bit daft at times. We’ve all done it when we were young.
“People see his tweets and whatever, but he’s not like that at all, he’s harmless. Don’t forget he’s new into football as well – he’s only had one full season full-time – so I’m sure, if you give him a year or two, that will be out of him and he’ll be fully focused.
“He’s doing great for us. He’s scoring goals for us every week. And he can say what he likes in post-match interviews if he keeps doing the business.
“His confidence is infectious. He believes in his ability and that’s a great thing to have as a striker. All the best strikers in the world will tell you if you give them the ball they’ll score and he’s like that. He’s developing a partnership with Dom, [Dominique Malonga].”
Hanlon knows that anything other than a win against Raith will take the shine off Monday’s Ibrox win and is desperate for Hibs to maintain their momentum. “We’ve changed our formation and it seems to have worked in the last two games. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to change back, and we need to produce the same kind of performances no matter what shape we’re playing, to be honest,” he added.
“Losing to Raith in the cup last season was a real low for us – it kind of started our downward spiral.
“That was a really disappointing one at home. But, to be honest, we’ve not thought about that game.
“They have different players, we have different players and a new manager, so we’re just looking forward to getting three points.”