Defender of Hibees' new gems

As a youngster at Goodison Park Sean O'Hanlon rubbed shoulders in training with the likes of David Ginola, Paul Gascoigne, David Weir, Duncan Ferguson and Richard Gough. Sadly, however, for the Liverpool-born defender he never realised his dream of playing for Everton.

At the age of 21 he quit the Toffees without a first team game to his name, determined to carve out a career for himself elsewhere, a spell on loan at Swindon Town having given him the taste for playing week-in, week-out.

Now 28 and after two-and-a-half years with Swindon and five more at MK Dons the day he decided to turn his back on his boyhood heroes, if not entirely forgotten, has been consigned to the dim and distant past, O'Hanlon now having a double target in his sights.

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Not only is the no-nonsense defender intent on helping restore Hibs' fortunes, he's determined to ensure the crop of youngsters currently emerging from the Easter Road outfit's much-envied youth system go on to live the dream.

O'Hanlon has arrived to find himself surrounded by home-grown talent, Paul Hanlon, David Wotherspoon, Lewis Stevenson and Callum Booth having already established themselves as first team regulars - but it is the promise shown by the likes of Scott Taggart, David Crawford, Lewis Horner and Scott Smith over the past few weeks which has left him stunned.

"I don't think I've ever been at a club like this," he said. "Usually you get one or two young lads coming through who go on to make a career in the game, but to have so many at the one time shows the future for Hibs is very bright.

"When I was at Everton Leon Osman and Tony Hibbert were a couple of years ahead of me but of my own age group none went on to play for the club.

I can't think of anywhere with such a big group of young lads who have come up through the ranks playing together.

"I knew we weren't going to have a large squad and the gaffer (Colin Calderwood] told me it was a young group of boys but the youngsters we have are quality." Recalling how only a few years ago Hibs fans were drooling over the talents of the "golden generation" - the likes of Garry O'Connor, Derek Riordan, Kevin Thomson, Scott Brown, Steven Whittaker and Steven Fletcher - O'Hanlon said: "You have to give credit to the club and it's coaches for developing so many young players, it's a big, big part of this football club."O'Connor, of course, is back at Easter Road for a second time as is Ivan Sproule, not home-grown but appreciative of the chance he was offered by Hibs to become a professional player at the relatively late age of 23, and club skipper Ian Murray, the trio, along with O'Hanlon and other experienced pros such as Graham Stack, Mark Brown, Martin Scott and Edwin de Graaf, charged with nursing the youngsters through.

And it is a responsibility O'Hanlon insisted he's already relishing.

He said: "They might need a bit of time until they develop but they can do a job in the first team and that's the main thing.

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"It's great they have all come through the ranks, they know what the club is all about. The gaffer has faith in them but it will be a learning curve, they are going to have to grow up quickly. It will be a big season for them.

"But hopefully the likes of myself, Garry, Ivan and the others with a bit more experience can help carry them through. I'm looking forward to helping them take the first steps in their careers. I think the fans like to see youngsters who have come through their own system; to see local lads playing for their local club and we certainly have plenty to choose from."

Bearing in mind Victor Palsson, David Stephens and Danny Galbraith are all 20 or younger and Matt Thornhill - regarded as one of the older heads although he is still only 22 - the reliance Calderwood will be placing on youth over the course of the season is evident although his squad could be strengthened further should moves for Cillian Sheridan and Junior Agogo come to fruition.

Whatever the season throws at them, they'll face no tougher test than Sunday's opening match, a visit from SPL title favourites Celtic, a match which will give O'Hanlon his first experience of Easter Road following the cancellation of last weekend's friendly with Barnsley. Although O'Connor and Sproule were desperate to make their returns, there was no-one more disappointed than O'Hanlon.

He said: "I was certainly looking forward to the Barnsley game, getting myself familiar with the surroundings, the crowd, the pitch.

"The lads were preparing for the game - I was getting a rub - when the gaffer came in to say it was off. It was a first for me, I'd never had a pre-season game called off because of a waterlogged pitch.

"The main thing for me, though, is I've got to know the players around me over the last few weeks, I've played in a some games, I know what the boys are all about and that's the most important thing."

O'Hanlon admitted he couldn't have asked for a tougher match for his competitive debut, but insisted he and his team-mates are ready. He said: "Celtic will be looking to win the title, they'll be expected to win every game so the pressure is on them."

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And O'Hanlon revealed he'll be coming up against a familiar figure in Hoops striker Gary Hooper who took the SPL by storm last season with 22 goals in 36 appearances following his 2.4 million move from Scunthorpe United.

He faced Hooper twice while playing for MK Dons, winning and losing and although he can boast the Celtic hitman left on each occasion without a goal to his name, he's well aware of the threat he poses.

O'Hanlon said: "It doesn't surprise me that he had such an impact after coming up here. I know what he is like, he has good movement, he's clever and you have to be on your guard. I'm sure he hasn't changed, he was always going to score goals."

Having arrived at Easter Road, O'Hanlon is hoping he can be similarly impressive - albeit in a defensive role - insisting League One in England is much tougher than perhaps some up here imagine. "It's a strong league with lots of big money moves, Craig Mackail-Smith moving from Peterborough to Brighton for 2.5 million for instance - as clubs realise the talent there is with many players having been released by Premier League sides which makes it quite a young league.

"For me the SPL is a new challenge but I can't wait for the season to get underway."