Hanlon ups starting bid at Hibs

Paul Hanlon is no longer content to be the new kid on the block, happy to be on the fringes taking whatever game time is on offer.

Although still only 20, the Hibs defender has already clocked up nearly 50 first team matches, a figure he's determined to see soar, starting with the opening day of the new SPL season as he and his team-mates travel to face Motherwell on Sunday.

The absence of utility man Ian Murray, suspended for the first two league games, would appear to have paved the way for Hanlon to make an immediate bid to stake his claim, the youngster featuring at left-back as Hibs fought back to defeat English Premier League new boys Blackpool in their final pre-season match despite being seen by boss John Hughes as a centre-half of the future.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And it is an opportunity Hanlon, who made his debut aged only 17 in what was former manager Mixu Paatelainen's first game in charge, is determined to seize, arguing that, if the situation was reversed, his team-mate would have no hestitation in doing likewise.

He said: "Since playing that first game I've played more and more matches every season and now, at the start of a new campaign, I want to play as much as possible.

"Even as a kid I wanted to play every week although I realised that wasn't going to happen. Now, though, I don't just want to be hanging around, getting bits and pieces of a game or a match here and there. However, to be playing every week you must impress each time you go out onto the park."

Hanlon realises he faces quite a challenge if he's to meet that ambition, captain Chris Hogg and Ivory Coast star Sol Bamba Hughes' first-choice partnership in the centre of defence while Murray appears to have the left-back slot sewn up.

In the cut-throat world of professional football, however, Hanlon is well aware one player's misfortune presents another with an opening and now hopes his performance at Bloomfield Road will be enough to secure his place in the starting XI at Fir Park.

He said: "Lewis Stevenson can obviously play left-back as well but I started there on Sunday. It was the first time this pre-season I've played in that position which made it a bit different but when I broke into the team it was as left-back.

"It was a good fitness exercise, getting up and down the park and if I'm needed there I'm more than happy to play."

The trip to Lancashire brought a gruelling pre-season schedule for Hanlon and his team-mates to an end, Hibs having travelled some 5,000 miles to play ten matches including a tour of Holland, their Europa League clashes with Slovenian side NK Maribor and two trips south of the border to face Carlisle United and Blackpool.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sunday's victory was, however, the ideal pick-me-up following the disappointment of losing twice in the space of a week to Maribor, according to Hanlon, who admitted Hughes' players possibly suffered something of a hangover from the second leg of their Euro tie in the opening phases at Bloomfield Road.

He said: "It's been something of a different pre-season. Normally, I'd imagine, we'd have gone to somewhere like Holland, played a few games and come back to complete our preparations. But we've been mixing up friendlies with Europe, clocking up a fair number of miles in the process as we were unable, other than the second Maribor match, to play at Easter Road because of the building of the new stand and the pitch being relaid and widened.

"Obviously it was bitterly disappointing to go out to Maribor but there's no point dwelling on it, we have to look forward, to focus on the league starting with a big match at Motherwell on Sunday and trying to qualify for Europe all over again. I think the two games we had in the Europa League have merely whetted everyone's appetite for more.

"Every player wants to be involved in European competition, we've had a wee taste of it and, I am sure, we'll all be determined to be back in it next season."

If Hughes and his players had come under fire from some sections of their support for their performances in Europe - ignoring the fact the Slovenians, as regular European competitors, had simply been too good for Hibs, Hanlon was delighted to see 1,500 clad in green and white on the Lancashire coast to see goals from Derek Riordan and Liam Miller earn a well- deserved win.

He said: "The fans love their club, they pay their money to watch us and if they are not happy then they show it. But it is up to us to make them happy by playing well.

"We saw that great support down at Blackpool, they got right behind us and I'm sure they'll be there on Sunday to see us get off to a good start which, hopefully, will have them turning out in increasing numbers.

"We didn't start too well at Blackpool but once we got a foothold in the game I felt we created plenty of chances and with the players we have in our team we are always likely to get goals."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

While Hughes indicated he'll be easing back on the training field this week to allow his players to gather themselves for the weekend, there will be no rest for Hanlon, one of five Easter Road players on international duty over the next few days.

Hanlon and David Wotherspoon are part of the Scotland Under-21 squad which faces Sweden in Paisley tomorrow; Sol Bamba has been called up by the Ivory Coast for tonight's friendly with Italy at West Ham's Upton Park; Anthony Stokes is in the Republic of Ireland squad to play Estonia in Dublin while Easter Road newcomer David Stephens missed the Blackpool trip as he travelled with Wales Under-21s to face Malta in Valletta.

Hanlon headed straight to the Scottish headquarters at Clydebank from Blackpool, thankful there's not so much travelling involved but, again, determined to play his part in Billy Stark's squad.

He added: "I always look forward to playing for Scotland. We've got a big double-header in the European Championship coming up against Belarus and Austria so this will be an important game in our preparation.

"On a personal level, if I can get in another 90 minutes or so then it should stand me in good stead for Sunday."