PAUL HANLON has waited a long time for his first goal of the season.
The defender, who has made 24 league and cup appearances for Hibs in this campaign, finally broke his duck in the 3-0 win over Kilmarnock on Sunday.
Nonetheless, it was the fact that Hibs managed to shut the Ayrshire side out at the other end which pleased him most.
The 23-year-old opened the scoring with an impressive header before Paul Cairney and Lewis Stevenson made sure of the points.
Having come close on several occasions in recent weeks without actually seeing any of his efforts hit the back of the net, Hanlon was delighted to finally get off the mark.
However he insisted that the most satisfying aspect of the weekend’s win over Allan Johnston’s side was that, yet again, they did not concede.
Hibs have now kept clean sheets in five out of their last seven matches and have only lost a total of two goals in the two matches which they did leak goals.
While he’d love to score more goals of his own, Hanlon believes that shutting opponents out is the perfect foundation for a successful season.
Hanlon said: “I was delighted that one of my efforts finally hit the back of the net. I’ve had a good few attempts lately that have just not crossed the line or been knocked away at the last minute, so it was pleasing to see one go in at last.
“It’s always good to get a goal at any time, but to also get the three points and a clean sheet made it into pretty much the perfect day, both for me and for the team.”
Hanlon was quick to praise the Hibs strikers for the part that they played in the victory, despite not getting their names on the scoresheet themselves.
He says the front men have just as big a part to play in defending as the rest of their team-mates – and that the rest of the team must take more responsibility for scoring goals, too.
Having seen Michael Nelson and Jordon Forster also bag goals in recent weeks and the likes of James Collins provide a vital contribution outside of the box as well as in it, he continued: “I think that in the past we have maybe relied a bit too much on our strikers to score us a goal and it has been nice over the last few games to see the goals spread out a bit more.
“I think that it can only be good for the side if we are able to score from all over the pitch, but a lot of credit still has to go to the strikers because they worked really hard.
“They might not have scored themselves, but if you look at the work they did off the ball and the crosses that were coming in, they contributed to the win just as much, if not more, than everyone else.
“I thought that they were exceptional, to be honest, and the way that they worked for the side gave us the base to go on and get the victory.”
The performance against Kilmarnock was one of the best that the Easter Road side have put in all season and with the New Year derby just two days away, Hibs could well be hitting form at just the right time.
Hibs manager Terry Butcher and Hanlon were both keen to play down the importance of the game against Hearts but there’s no doubt that this group of players and their supporters will be out to gain some revenge on their rivals, who beaten them in the league and cup this season already.
“The Kilmarnock result is a big boost for everyone – particularly the supporters – going into the derby game.
“Ideally, we would put in a similar performance on Thursday night and get a similar result. But it’s just another game, really, we’ve got to treat it like any other match and we have just got to make sure that we put maximum effort in, like we did against Kilmarnock, to hopefully get as positive a result at the end of it.
“The fans turn out week-in, week-out for us and it would be great to give them something to celebrate.
“Everyone was disappointed with the result earlier in the season and we want to make up for that by sending them home happy this time around.”
Prior to Sunday’s match, Hibs had won just two league matches at Easter Road in this calendar year, but Hanlon is hoping that the win over Killie can be a springboard to more success on their home patch.
He has seen a huge improvement in Hibs’ play since Butcher’s arrival at the club and would love to see his side bag their second home win on the bounce against Hearts on Thursday night.
“It would be a great way to start the year off,” Hanlon added on the possibility of a win over their rivals. “Our home form in this calendar year has not been the best, so we want to start off well and change that around a bit.
“If we can get three points on the board in our first game of the new year then it would be a great boost to everyone. Confidence is a massive thing for us. When he (Butcher) first came in he spoke to us and said that he could see we were good players, but that we were low on confidence and not trying things as a result.
“He also said that we were not as convincing in the final third as we should have been and, slowly but surely, I think we are starting to improve on those things.
“We have a new style of play. The manager wants us to put a lot of pressure on the opposition’s back four and I am sure if you asked the Kilmarnock defenders, they wouldn’t have had an easy or enjoyable game against us because of that. It was for us, though, and to score three goals was brilliant.”
Kilmarnock manager Johnston claimed after the weekend’s match that the scoreline flattered Hibs, but most people watching the game from the stands would have disagreed with him.
However, the Kilmarnock manager did concede that his side could learn a few lessons in defence from Butcher’s side and Hanlon added: “First and foremost we are looking for clean sheets in a game, that’s how you get points on the board. We’ve been doing quite well on that front in recent weeks.
“We’ve kept a clean sheet in five out of our last seven matches and only conceded two goals in the other two games.
“It seems to be going well at the moment and long may it continue.”
While the all-round team performance deserved praise, Stevenson, in particular, put in an impressive performance against Kilmarnock.
He caused Hibs’ Ayrshire opponents all sorts of problems throughout the game and somehow had the energy not only to go on a lung-bursting run in the final 20 minutes of the match, but also to bag the third goal in stoppage time.
And Hanlon is hoping to see him produce more of the same kind of form against Hearts. “His engine is unbelievable,” admitted Hanlon. “He could probably keep running all day.
“To have the energy at that stage of the game to go on that kind of run – and then in stoppage time to put one away was just unbelievable.
“He was excellent on Sunday, he does it every week for us and hopefully we will see more of that from him this season.”