Paul Hanlon says Hibs boss Jack Ross has built on Neil Lennon’s positivity
Paul Hanlon can’t recall a specific moment when things changed but he does suspect it was during Neil Lennon’s reign as Hibs gaffer.
It was the Northern Irishman who tapped into the feelgood factor that came with winning the Scottish Cup the summer before he was installed as manager and imbued the club with the kind of confidence that still allows them to head into each and every game believing they are capable of winning.
But, this weekend, as the defending champions turn up at Easter Road, where they have won just two of the last seven head to heads contested there in the past three years, Hanlon is hoping that his former boss has cause to regret the role he played in moulding mindsets.
“That’s not bad,” he says of the club’s recent home record against Celtic, which includes five from the last seven games unbeaten - two of them victories, three draws. “But we go into every game to win. We know how good Celtic have been over the last few seasons but we back ourselves.
“I don’t know if there was an exact moment when that happened but it probably was when we got promoted from the Championship and then did quite well the following season under Neil. That gave us the belief, whether we were playing the Old Firm or anyone else, especially at home.”
The positivity was justified. They lost just one league match at home in that final Championship season and a miserly four games on their own turf in their first term back in the top flight the year after. In the campaigns that followed, they matched that or bettered it, albeit last season’s three came in a shortened season. Thirteen games into the current campaign, they have lost just one on their own patch.
In the results and the mood, there is a feeling that Hanlon has come full circle. From the days he turned up as a youngster at Easter Road, emboldened by the optimism of youth, never contemplating defeat, through what he calls the ‘Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson era’. Since then there have been dark days and relegation battles - some won, some lost - and then promotion, European football, and a belief that they can go toe to toe with the best in the Scottish game without fear of failure.
“You don’t win them all but we always go in believing we can.”
If that inner belief was ignited by Lennon, it has been fuelled by the strong sense of togetherness and respect that exists in the dressing room these days.
“Belief only takes you so far, you need good players and a good team as well,” says the 30-year-old defender. “We have that.
“The fact we have managed to get those results against them is something you take confidence from but we know that we had to work hard for each and every point. You have to be prepared to do that in every game but especially against Celtic, who will give you an education if you are not on it.”
The belief in the squad these days comes from being able to draw on positive experiences but also in the preparation and industry shown on the training pitch, as well as a manager and coaching team that appears to be getting the best out of their charges, who are as united as ever, according to Hanlon. And, having seen off well over a decade’s worth of managers and players, talks of the trust and respect that galvanises the current crop.
“There is that closeness and trust; you definitely could call it respect. To win big games you need everyone working as one.
“We all want the same thing and I think the fact that we are not scared to tell each other when we someone is not doing things right shows how close we are and how much we are working as a group.”
He admits he has sat in dressing rooms when that has not been the case. When there was an individual desire but not always a collective will.
Under manager Jack Ross, Hanlon says that would never be the case, and these days he says he is surrounded by men he can rely on.
From squad mates who have had to bide their time, waiting for a sustained run in the side, to the manager and coaches who guide them.
“The gaffer is one of the easiest I have ever had in terms of feeling comfortable with what he is asking us to do or me feeling like I could go to him if I needed to talk about something, whether that is football, family, tactics, whatever.
“He always wants us to be positive and to go out and play. He wants his players to believe in themselves and each other and he wants us to work hard for each other. That’s how we have got results in the past and we will need to cover for each other if we want another result on Saturday.
“And, Potts [the Hibs assistant manager, John Potter] is a great coach and a really good link between the staff and players. He has also been really good for the defence. We had a lot of clean sheets earlier in the season and we need to get back to that but he just takes us back to the basics.”
There had been questions about the squad’s resolve following the semi-final defeat to Hearts and the league loss to Aberdeen but their emphatic showing against Dundee in the Betfred Cup last weekend was a decent response and one they can now build on, says the captain.
“We were comfortable at 1-0 so to lose the goal was a test but we hit back and it was good to see players come off the bench and make an impact. That shows we are all in it together.”
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