As summers go, 2016 will take some beating for Paul Hanlon.
In the past ten weeks alone, the Hibs defender has become a Scottish Cup-winning legend, got married and penned a new contract at a club riding its biggest wave of optimism in years. Even upon returning to work, he was part of a side that recorded a memorable 1-0 away win over Danish side Brondby in the Europa League last week.
With the Scottish Championship campaign about to kick off a week tomorrow, the time for basking in past delights is over, however. Hanlon knows the full focus must be on ensuring Hibs are preparing for a return to the Premiership in a year’s time. “It’s been a great summer, winning the Scottish Cup, having all the celebrations and getting married but it’s back into it now,” the centre-back said. “For a couple of weeks after winning the cup everyone was so high and fans are coming up to you and thanking you, saying how amazing it was.
“It really was incredible. The parade on the Sunday was a lot bigger than I expected. The game was amazing as well. It was a great weekend, but we need to put that all to bed now. It’s time to forget about the Scottish Cup for now – I can enjoy that when I retire. As soon as pre-season starts again, you need to refocus because if you start resting on your success of the previous season, it’ll come back to bite you. When it gets to this stage, you’re just desperate for the season to get started again.”
Supporters are thrilled that Hanlon decided to pledge his future to Hibs for another three years because there were genuine fears that the cup final would prove to be his last game in the green and white as he mulled over his options as a free agent. However, he admits he knew in his heart of hearts that he would be remaining at Hibs, even before it became clear that the highly-regarded Neil Lennon would be replacing cup-winning boss Alan Stubbs in early June.
“I was speaking to [head of football operations] George Craig a lot to get updates about who the new manager was going to be but it wasn’t too big a factor in my decision, to be honest,” he said. “I’d decided that any options I had weren’t enough to make me want to leave Hibs. I’d decided to stay here before the new manager was confirmed, but when it was announced that it was Neil Lennon I was delighted.
“I spoke to a few people [at other clubs] but I was never really close to leaving. It would have needed to be something really exciting to make me leave Hibs but nothing ever really came close, especially after the high at the end of last season. Nothing I was offered came close to how I feel about playing for Hibs.
“I’m happy just now, I feel good and I’m playing with a lot of confidence. I think it helps that I’m playing in a confident team because you can only really be as good as the team around you. I feel like I’m getting better all the time. As a defender that can happen naturally because you’re getting more experienced all the time and you know how to deal with situations on the pitch. Hopefully this is me coming into my peak years.”
In February, Hanlon was touted for a Scotland call-up by former Hibs colleague James McPake, although the centre-back, who was national team captain at Under-19 and Under-21 level, insists that is not something he is giving too much thought to at present. “Other people have spoken about me potentially getting a Scotland call-up but that’s not something I think about too often,” he said. “All I can do is concentrate on playing well for Hibs and if anything like that comes along, I’d be delighted. The fact Hibs are in the Championship would make getting into the squad slightly harder. My main focus is on getting Hibs back into the Premiership. If I was playing in a successful team in the top six, I think I’d have a better chance. I’m not sure if I’m playing well enough for a Scotland call-up – that would be for Gordon Strachan to decide. I’m happy with my performances most weeks just now and I’m just concentrating on maintaining that because if you drop your standards, never mind Scotland, you’ll drop out of the Hibs team.”
Right now, there seems little chance of Hanlon dropping out of the Hibs team. His stock is high as a centre-back, and he even has the back-up option of being able to operate in midfield, where he played for a short time against Brondby. “I don’t know what the manager’s plans are for me long term, but it was just a case of [assistant] Garry Parker asking me if I’d played in midfield before,” said Hanlon. “I think they’d seen something in training that made them think I could do a job in there. I’m more comfortable at centre-half but I’m happy enough to fill in in midfield if needed. If I had a run of games in midfield I’d feel confident doing it, but I think the gaffer still sees me primarily as a centre-half. It might just be a case that I’m needed in midfield later in games, or if there are any injuries. Being able to play in a number of positions can help you out at times. I think I’d just be seen as a sitting midfielder rather than a creative player.”
A feature of Stubbs’ two-year reign was the sense of camaraderie in the Hibs squad. Hanlon reports that the sense of harmony has remained under Lennon. “It’s the majority of the squad that was here last year and everybody gets on great,” he said. “It’s a close group and it’s the best squad I’ve been involved in. We’re always fighting for each other but at the same time we’re not scared to have a go at each other. There’s a good mix here – it’s a good place to be.
“It was good to get a name like Neil Lennon, who everyone respects, because it got everyone refocused for the new season. He’s exactly the sort of manager you’d want to come in and fill Alan Stubbs’ shoes. The boys have really enjoyed his training and are feeling really fit – I think that’s showed in the games. Playing-wise, the new manager’s not changed much but in terms of how he goes about things, he’s slightly different. He can be intense and he can be light-hearted. If we’re not doing something the way he wants, then he’s not slow in telling us, but that’s the way you want it.”
Lennon will expect an intensity to Hibs’ play when they visit Shrewsbury Town on Sunday for their final warm-up match before knocking off their league campaign away to Falkirk next weekend. “The Shrewsbury game is probably our last chance to impress the manager before the season starts,” said Hanlon. “He’ll be looking to pick his starting XI for the Falkirk game, so it’s a chance for everyone to put in a performance and try and get into the team for that one.”
The friendly at Greenhous Meadow will pit Hanlon against two old team-mates in the shape of Shrewsbury new boys Gary Deegan and Ryan McGiven, who were both signed by Pat Fenlon four years ago. Deegan’s early promise at Easter Road was halted when he suffered a broken cheekbone after being attacked in Edinburgh city centre. McGivern had one excellent campaign on loan from Manchester City, but, after joining permanently the following season, he was part of the team which suffered relegation under Terry Butcher. “It’ll be good to catch up with them – it was the same with the Birmingham game on Sunday, seeing Clayton Donaldson and Jonathan Grounds,” said Hanlon. “It’s always good to catch up with old team-mates you’ve not seen in a while. I got on well with Ryan and Deegs. They were both good guys and good players as well. The attack was the main downside of Deegs’ time in Edinburgh but he enjoyed his time here.
“Ryan was a good player. He’d come from Man City with a big reputation and he’d played a lot of international football as well. I don’t think you get as many caps as he did without being a good player. The relegation wasn’t down to any one player. The whole team were low on confidence – you could see that on the pitch every week. I’m sure Ryan’s glad to have had a fresh start. He’s not got anything to prove.”