Paul Hanlon recently made his 250th appearance for Hibernian. But it could all have been so different had his father acted on the anguished cry of “I’m a midfielder, get me out of here” during his first few days at the club.
Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Falkirk counted as another blast from the past for Hanlon, whose deployment in midfield, where he also started the season for an hour against Rangers, recalled his days in boys’ club football.
Hanlon was more than happy to answer head coach Alan Stubbs’ request for him to push forward from centre-half, where Hibs have been left exposed after injuries to Dylan McGeouch and Marvin Bartley. Now there is also the question of John McGinn’s status following his red card at the weekend.
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Hanlon is more than happy to step into the breach since he once regarded midfield as his natural position. Indeed, he was horrified when, having joined Hibs from Hutchison Vale, Alistair Stevenson, the then head of the club’s youth academy coach, proposed playing him in defence. This wasn’t how Hanlon imagined things would be when he was scoring goals for fun as an attacking midfielder for Hutchie.
“I made the switch under Alistair Stevenson here,” he reflected yesterday, legs still aching after a powerful shift for ten-man Hibs against Falkirk. “He was taking us in the youth teams and I actually think it was one of my first games for Hibs, in the under-15s.
“He pulled me aside and said: ‘I can see you being a good centre-half’. My first thought was: ‘Dad, get me out of here!’ I had never thought of playing defensively before. But I’ve got a lot to thank him for, because I probably wouldn’t have made the Hibs first-team if I’d stayed in midfield.”
Never mind simply breaking into the team, which Hanlon did under Mixu Paatelainen, he has now racked up 252 appearances. Not bad for a 25 year-old. But even given this impressive weight of games, Saturday felt a bit special.
“I enjoyed it but it’s hard trying to get on the ball, be in so many different positions and not being able to relax at any point in the game,” he said. “That’s the hardest thing. I don’t know if it’s a one-off, you’d probably have to ask the manager.
“It wasn’t something we worked on during the week in training and we hadn’t really spoken about it before. I actually played there against Rangers in the Petrofac Cup, for the first 60 minutes, then moved back. But, other than that, he just said I could go in there to start off with and, if he wanted to change it, he had the options to do that. Obviously, going down to ten men made it more difficult, as well, with all the running about!
“But I did enjoy the attacking side of it, playing the ball into the strikers and then bursting forward. I’ll be the first to admit that I tired a bit in the second half. It’s always good to be able to play in different positions. If the manager needs me there, I’m more than happy to do it.”
Considering that Darren McGregor and Justin Fontaine have now begun to establish a solid partnership in defence, perhaps this readiness to please is expedient on Hanlon’s part. He has described the current Hibs team in which he is playing as the best he has known. From someone who made his debut as long ago as 2008, it is an eye-brow raising claim.
There is, though, now a genuine battle for first-team places. It isn’t only Hanlon who would happily play out of position if it meant getting a game. Perhaps the threat of McGinn’s imminent suspension – the club yesterday appealed the red card he was shown in the 43rd minute of Saturday’s game for a lunge on Mark Kerr – means there could be an opening in the middle of midfield for at least the next couple of matches, one of which happens to be against Rangers.
Hanlon scored the winner against the Ibrox side in their last meeting. The victory cut the gap at the top to five points, and now it is only three. After the last-gasp equaliser against Falkirk preserved an unbeaten run stretching back 16 games, confidence is flowing through this Hibs team. Hanlon added: “This is the best Hibs team that I have ever been in. Ability wise and personality wise we are a tight squad. This is a great place to be and all the players love coming into training in the morning. It is a great laugh. But we are serious about the big job that we have at hand.”
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The Championship title-race with Rangers, added to the competition for places at the club, means there is a lot of energy in the corridors and on the training pitches at East Mains, the Hibs training base.
Hanlon considers the point gained against Falkirk, thanks to a late equaliser, to be a point won, particularly since Rangers were also held, at home to Morton in their case.
But Hanlon and his teammates will want to restrict the gifts to those being donated by kind-hearted fans this weekend when Hibs host Queen of the South at Easter Road. A supporter-led drive to donate goods to foodbanks will take place between 12pm and 3pm outside the ground. Hibs then intend to secure win that would set them up for a game of games nine days later – against Rangers, at Ibrox.