Paul Hanlon insists Hibs won’t be reading much into Falkirk’s recent slump and will be bracing themselves for another tough test against a side who have notoriously made life difficult for them in recent seasons.
The two teams have forged a fierce rivalry since the Easter Road club were relegated to the Championship two and a half years ago. In this period, they have met 12 times in all competitions, with Falkirk winning four times and Hibs only three. The Bairns finished above the Hibees last season and then stunned them with a stoppage-time winner in the second leg of a dramatic play-off semi-final at Falkirk Stadium in May.
Early signs this season are that Hibs now hold the upper hand, with Neil Lennon’s side having won 2-1 away to Peter Houston’s team on the opening day of the season before going on to open up a nine-point advantage over their rivals in the first third of the season. The Bairns have won none of their last three games, but Hanlon remains wary of a side who haven’t lost in their last five visits to Easter Road.
“Falkirk are still a good side,” the defender said ahead of today’s meeting in the Capital. “The majority of their players are still there from last year and we know how tough it is going to be. But we take confidence in winning there at the start of the season. We are at home this time and we are in good form so there’s no reason we can’t get three points again.
“Falkirk have done well here recently so it’s a test of how far we have come under the manager. But every week is a test in this league. We are favourites every week and that in itself is a test, especially in front of our big home crowd. We have to deal with that and so far we have done that.”
Hibs and Dundee United are locked together at the top of the Championship, albeit the Tannadice side have played a game more and have an inferior goal difference. However, Hanlon, whose side were six points ahead of Falkirk last Christmas before finishing below them, is refusing to view it as a two-horse title race just yet.
“It’s still really tight,” he said. “Falkirk are a few places down right now but they are by no means out of it. It’s a really tough league. We just have to focus on putting a good run together and hopefully that could take us clear, but Dundee United will fight all the way, I’m sure.”
Hibs’ position at the top of the table owes plenty to their solid defence. In their opening 12 league games they have kept seven clean sheets and conceded just six goals. As a centre-back, Hanlon draws satisfaction from this state of affairs.
“I’m delighted with the way we have been defending this season,” he said. “You always want a clean sheet and we’ve notched up a fair few so that’s good. I’ve enjoyed playing in a back three the last few weeks. We’re not conceding many goals but we are not giving away many chances either. We just need to keep working hard to keep more clean sheets.
“The manager wants us working well as a team together and the last few weeks in particular have been good. We’ve been defending from the front with the strikers and midfielders and it’s worked well. As a defender there’s nothing better than seeing our players blocking it when their defenders are trying to clear. It makes our lives a lot easier at the other end. And that’s what’s been happening.”
Hanlon has no concerns about Ross Laidlaw returning between the sticks today. The former Raith Rovers goalkeeper will deputise for Ofir Marciano, who was initially due to miss the game after being called up by Israel but was subsequently sidelined by a knee injury sustained while training with his national team on Wednesday. It remains to be seen how long the Hibs No.1 will be absent, but Hanlon has full faith in Laidlaw, who impressed while playing in his team’s first six competitive matches of the season.
“Ross was great in the matches he has played for us,” he said. “He has been patient and it looks like he will get his chance against Falkirk. I’ve no worries at all about Ross slotting in behind us. He’s exactly what you want in a goalkeeper. He’s a calming influence, not too rash, a very steady keeper. He just does his job and does it well. We’ve got great confidence in him.”