Hibs' Paul Hanlon talks derbies, Europe, return of fans and benefits of the winter break
It’s not his birthday but Paul Hanlon is looking forward to many happy returns as he weighs up a new season, nearly 13 years on from his first team breakthrough.
The on-field captain most of last term, he helped to steer Hibs to a third place Premiership finish for the first time in 16 years, ensuring an air of positivity as the majority of the squad get ready to reunite for pre-season on Monday.
As well as the return to training, the Easter Road club have a return to European competition to look forward to, the return of the Edinburgh derby and the even more welcome return of the winter break. On top of that, the expected return of some fans next season has heightened the sense of anticipation.
“First we have the European games and you want to make sure they go well because when the league starts, you want to be confident and raring to go, you don’t want to be going into that off the back of some disappointing results that then puts you on a downer going into the league campaign.
“That’s the bread and butter so it is all about building early momentum.
“When you look at the fixtures, you look at important dates, for example I have a good friend’s wedding, and then there is my wife’s birthday, so you look to see who you are playing around those dates. After that it’s the likes of the derbies. But, it’s also important how we start.”
Last season, in manager Jack Ross’ first full term at the helm, the Leith side got out of the blocks well, losing just one of their opening eight league fixtures and keeping a clean sheet in four of those early head to heads. That positioned them nicely at the right end of the table and gave them a solid foundation, never slipping below fourth throughout the campaign.
“Yeah, so you look at the first four or five fixtures and then see where you can go from there. You don’t really want to be chasing clubs.”
They get their 2021/22 term underway against Motherwell, Ross County, Dundee and Livingston before their first derby of the season, their first league encounter since Hearts were demoted, at Tynecastle.
“You do miss those games and I am looking forward to them coming back, more so because there are going to be fans back in the stadium - although we don’t know how many. But having as many as possible back at Easter Road would be a massive lift for everyone, the players and the fans.
“Last season whether you were home or away, a lot of games felt pretty similar because there were no fans.
“There were tougher games and harder teams to play against but in terms of environments there wasn’t a lot of difference.
“But, this season, when we go to Tynecastle they are going to have their fans there and vice versa when we are at home. I think the excitement will build when fans are there.”
After a couple of weeks’ downtime, the Hibs players have already been following individual fitness programmes to keep them ticking over during the off-season and everyone is looking to hit the ground running.
“Hopefully the gaffer will be similar to the way he was last year in terms of setting targets, short-term and long-term. But we will see what kind of start we get off to.
“There’s no doubt that our start last year helped build confidence ahead of the tougher games. It was brilliant and we secured a lot of points and a lot of clean sheets early on and that helped us build momentum and allowed us to really kick on.
“The way the league is, there are going to be a lot of tight games and not much between a lot of the squads so if you can get off to that good start that helps because teams will take a lot of points off each other. Hopefully a good start can propel us to the sort of league season we had last season.”
There are some dicey periods, though, with the end of September/October and then December/New Year posing a succession of challenges.
“We always tend to go through spells like that and it is normally around December, when we tend to have Hearts, Aberdeen, Celtic and Rangers. Those are the games you want to play in but you also want to have as many points in the bag going into them and the confidence that helps you through them.
“It will be a busy spell for us. So we need to make sure we are ready and that the fixtures are memorable for the fans.”
But, there will be some respite after the January 2 derby, courtesy of the newly-reinstated winter shutdown. Something Hanlon believes could help Hibs.
“That probably was the stage where we had a wee blip and dropped some points last season so it will be good to have the winter break back and if we can get away to winter training camps and some warm weather then I think that can be beneficial. I like the winter break. After a busy festive spell you get some time to spend with the family, then go through a mini pre-season where we all get fit again and recharge the batteries for the second half of the season. I definitely welcome it and I think most players will be the same.”
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