Hanlon praises midfield trio who make Hibs tick

Paul Hanlon tries to get the ball past Dundee United keeper Radoslaw Cierzniak. Picture: Jane Barlow

Paul Hanlon tries to get the ball past Dundee United keeper Radoslaw Cierzniak. Picture: Jane Barlow

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Paul Hanlon today paid tribute to Hibs’ midfield for providing a solid platform for the team’s recent resurgence.

After an underwhelming start to the season, the Easter Road side are unbeaten in their last seven games (outwith a penalty shoot-out) despite starting as underdogs in four of them. Even though they lost on penalties to Dundee United in Wednesday night’s thrilling League Cup quarter-final tie, the Hibs fans bounded out of the stadium with plenty of reason for optimism having been treated to one of their most exhilarating home performances for several years.

It came just a few days after Alan Stubbs’ side gave a fine account of themselves in the 1-1 draw with Championship leaders Hearts. A feature of both matches was the way the Hibs midfield asserted themselves against highly-regarded opponents. In Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch and Scott Robertson had the upper hand against a Hearts midfield containing the formidable duo of Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis.

On Wednesday, up against the respected Paul Paton-John Rankin axis, Robertson and Allan picked up where they had left off on Sunday, ably abetted by captain Liam Craig, who came in to replace the suspended McGeouch and acted as a driving force. Centre-half Hanlon admits the midfield – a mixture of energy and creativity – is a joy to play behind.

“The midfield is doing brilliant at the moment,” Hanlon told the Evening News. “That performance against United was without Dylan, who was arguably our best player in the derby. Liam stepped in and it seemed there wasn’t any difference. The workrate that the midfield players are putting in is unbelievable and it helps out the back four a lot. They’ve all been great. Playing in the back four, it’s great having a midfield in front of you that work so tirelessly. They never stop, all of them. When they’re closing space and working so hard, it makes a massive difference to the defence.”

Allan, in particular, is emerging as the man of the moment for Hibs, with his craft and elegance leaving supporters spellbound in the last few games. Hanlon believes the confident 22-year-old is approaching the type of form that made him one of Scottish football’s hottest prospects when he came through the ranks at Dundee United and then earned a £300,000 to West Brom almost three years ago. “Scott looks like he’s getting towards his best,” said Hanlon. “He’s taken a wee while to get his full fitness, but you can see the quality he’s got and hopefully this is the place for him to shine.”

The optimism surrounding Hibs’ performances over the past week has have been tinged with disappointment at not getting the results they felt they deserved. Against Hearts, Alim Ozturk’s 40-yard wonder goal denied Hibs victory in stoppage time, while they would have had a League Cup semi-final to look forward to if teenager Matt Kennedy hadn’t seen his penalty saved by Radoslaw Cierzniak just after Rankin had opened a window of opportunity for the Easter Road side by sending his kick over the bar. United took full advantage of their reprieve, with Conor Townsend scoring and Cierzniak subsequently saving from David Gray to ensure a 7-6 shoot-out win for the visitors.

“We were gutted, it was a cruel way to lose the game,” said Hanlon. “There wasn’t much between the teams at all – if anything I’d say we probably edged it overall. I thought we did really well and there was plenty to be proud of. We’ve got to take the positives from it.

“It’s a cruel game at times. It was cruel to us on Sunday and it was cruel on Wednesday, but it’ll make us stronger in the long run. Sometimes when we’ve had setbacks like that in the past it’s knocked the stuffing out of us a bit, but because of the way we’ve played, we can only take confidence from our last two games. The manager said to us after the game that even though we’d drawn one and lost one, we’ve got a standing ovation at the end of both of them, so the fans are noticing the progress we’re making.”

Hanlon scored Hibs’ third penalty, but sympathised with Kennedy and Gray, who both made excellent contributions in regulation play. “There weren’t too many people stepping up, so I said I’d take one,” said Hanlon. “I was a bit nervous in the build-up, but once I got down to the spot, I was fine. There’s nothing you can say or do to make the boys who missed feel better. If they miss the target, you can maybe say ‘you’ve got to hit the target’, but they both hit the target and the keeper saved them.”

Hanlon believes that Wednesday’s match should be viewed as a continuation of Hibs’ impressive recent form rather than a setback. Having been part of a side which has been regularly jeered off at Easter Road over the past few years, the defender appreciated the ovation the team received even though the game finished on a low note, and believes that the response from the fans is a sure sign that things are changing for the better. “We’ve now performed well against Ross County, Rangers, Hearts and Dundee United, so it’s not like we’re just raising our game for one-off matches,” said Hanlon. “No-one likes getting knocked out the cup but there are plenty positives to take and the fans can see that. The fans are there to be entertained and too many times they’ve been let down in big games. Although they didn’t get the result they wanted on Wednesday, they appreciated the performance. It’s great to see them giving us support like that.”

Hibs’ campaign has been undermined by slip-ups against the supposed lesser lights of the Championship. In that regard, the month of November will inevitably be viewed with caution by Hibs fans as their next three games, starting on Saturday week, are against Cowdenbeath, Queen of the South and Dumbarton, sides who have given them problems already this season.

“We stumbled a few times earlier in the season against the smaller clubs in the division, but we’re full of confidence just now and we’re looking forward to games now,” said Hanlon. “We know that if we keep playing the way we have been, then we’ll get three points. It’s just about making sure there are no more slip-ups.”