Paul Hanlon is reserving judgment on whether Hibernian can be realistic title challengers this season and says it is too early to say if the side will be able to effectively and consistently reach or even surpass the same standards they set last term without talismanic figures like John McGinn.
But what he is quick to attest to is the threat possessed by summer signing Stevie Mallan and his potential to follow his midfield predecessor’s footsteps and earn full international recognition.
The Scotland under-21 star has been a revelation since joining the Easter Road club, netting nine goals already and weighing in with countless assists from set-pieces and Hanlon believes he will be a prize asset as the Leith club starts to build momentum.
“If you lose the likes of John McGinn out of your team then it’s going to take time to adjust. He was a massive player for us and he’s shown since he left how good he is,” said Hanlon.
“But we’ve recruited well and the boys who were already here have stepped up and shared around the responsibility and kicked on as a team and shown we can play without him.”
After a Europa League adventure, the focus is back on domestic form and although it was a slightly stuttering start to the Premiership campaign, Hibs find themselves second in the table, ahead of Celtic and Rangers and trailing city rivals Hearts by just two points. But next up are trips to Celtic Park and Tynecastle, which is why Hanlon is biding his time before making any bold predictions.
“We had a good start under Yogi [John Hughes] and under Pat Fenlon we were top in November but it was never spoken of as a title race,” said Hanlon. “It is probably getting spoken about more now because Celtic and Rangers have had more stuttering starts than we’ve had but it is still too early to talk of what might happen. I think you have to be well over halfway through the fixtures to decide what might happen.
“We haven’t played any of the so-called bigger teams so we have to keep our performance levels high and see where it takes us. We’ve got a tough two games coming up after the international break and a really tough December with a lot of big games. We can only play who is in front of us and we’ve managed to take a good number of points so far but Parkhead and Tynecastle will probably be a real measure of what kind of level we’re at.”
Mallan is one who has risen to the challenge superbly so far, showing clinical accuracy from dead-ball situations outside the box.
“I was in the stand for the Hamilton Accies game [on Saturday] due to injury,” said Hanlon, whose loyalty to the club is being rewarded with a testimonial year, “and the gaffer touched on it after the game when he said you’re disappointed if Stevie Mallan doesn’t hit the target. He is so accurate and the way he strikes the ball is incredible. His second goal against Hamilton Accies didn’t fly into the net but it’s out of the keeper’s reach.
“The quality is great but it’s the consistency, it’s always on the money. We have scored a few goals from set-pieces already.
“In terms of long-range shooting I can’t remember seeing anyone like him in Scotland. He is deadly from 25 yards and hopefully he’s the next one who progresses into the full Scotland set-up. He practices quite a lot of free-kicks after training and it just shows that if you practice enough you can do what you want.”
But having started the season so well, the pressure is on the newcomer to produce the goods when facing the defending champions and in high-octane occasions such as the derby. “Yes, I think that’s probably the next test for him,” said Hanlon. “He has done well for us but that’s where you are judged, against the top teams in the league, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t.
“He is a confident boy and when he gets into those shooting positions he’s deadly.”