Six years ago, it was a case of “Paul Who?” as the kid plucked from Hibs’ Under-19 side ran out at Easter Road for new boss Mixu Paatelainen’s first game, a Scottish Cup tie against Inverness Caley Thistle.
Today, and almost 200 first-team games later, Paul Hanlon has become an integral figure in a green-and-white shirt, his value to the Capital club underlined by the fact he’s the only outfield player to have played every minute of every one of their 27 matches so far this season.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing though, with Hanlon aware he has had his critics within the Hibs support. However, to counter those doubters, he can point to the fact he’s convinced a succession of managers, namely Paatelainen, John Hughes, Colin Calderwood, Pat Fenlon and now Terry Butcher, of his worth.
The fact three of those bosses – Hughes, Calderwood and Butcher – were central defenders of some note during their own playing days again only serves to emphasise the talent and ability of a player who, despite appearing to have been around forever and a day, only turns 24 next week.
In recent weeks, the former Scotland Under-21 skipper has been at the top of his game, arguably playing the best football of his career – an observation Hanlon himself admits he’d find hard to contradict.
He said: “I am feeling confident in games just now, really enjoying it. Apart from the Aberdeen game and the last ten minutes against Dundee United, we’ve been winning games as well which has been a plus as you are noticed more if you are playing well and winning.”
Experience and physical maturity have also played their part for Hanlon, with the former Tynecastle High School pupil, who made the transition from left-back where he made his debut in that 3-0 win over Inverness, admitting it can be difficult for young centre-backs to cope with the demands of top-flight football.
He said: “I don’t think there’s fear when you go in as a young boy, it’s maybe experience and strength that the opposition players have over you at that stage. It’s a case of learning as much as you can and growing into the position. I’d actually started at Hibs as a midfielder and got my chance at left back but even then I was being told I’d eventually be a centre-half.
“You don’t get too many young centre backs, it’s a difficult position and you know if you make a mistake and cost the team a goal then the finger will inevitably be pointed at you.”
Hanlon acknowledges that he enjoyed a huge slice of luck when Paatelainen turned to him with both David Murphy and Lewis Stevenson injured that day in January 2008, admitting he couldn’t have imagined at that time that he’d go on to rack up so many games in a green and white shirt.
He said: “I think there’s been lots of boys in youth teams more than capable but that bit of luck you need to get yourself in there never came for them. When I came to the club I was just desperate to play for Hibs, that’s all I wanted. Obviously I was buzzing the day I made my debut but at that time you don’t want to think too far aheaad, you just hope that you’ll get another game. So to have come this far, to have played so many games and to have established myself in the team is great.”
Like most young players, Hanlon’s early seasons saw him in and out of the team, with a short period on loan at St Johnstone included as part of his education. Over the past two-and-a-half years, however, his name has rarely been missing from the teamsheet as he’s played 109 of Hibs’ 117 games in that period, with five missed last season because of a hip injury and only three during the 2011/12 campaign through illness, suspension and being rested before the Scottish Cup final. While insisting he’s been fortunate to have remained fit to play more often than not, Hanlon boasts an outstanding disciplinary record for a centre-back, with just 14 yellow cards and only the one red – for a handball on the goal-line away to Inverness – to his name.
So far this season he’s picked up just one booking but, he claimed, there’s nothing too remarkable in that statistic. He said: “I don’t go out there to foul other players, I try to stay on my feet and win the ball properly.
“I’m aggressive, yes, but I focus on winning the ball and I don’t want to dive into tackles. Confidence plays a big part. If you are feeling confident and are on your game, you make the right decisions, do the right things and that seems to be the case just now.”
As assured as he has been, Hanlon revealed he continues to listen and learn, with the recent arrival of Butcher and his assistant Maurice Malpas – both renowned defenders in their playing days – helping that process. He said: “John Hughes and Colin Calderwood were both top centre-halves, I tried to learn as much as I could from them, and now the gaffer and Maurice are here I intend to do the same from them as their records speak for themselves. But I think everyone’s confidence has risen, not just mine, although I do feel I’m playing the best I have for a while.
“When one manager leaves and a new one comes in, it’s all about having to impress again so each time it’s happened I’ve just tried to keep doing my own thing and working hard in training. You want to be in the team every week and if you are then you know you have to play well to stay there.”
While the influence of successive managers has played a part in Hanlon’s development, so, too, has partnering a seemingly endless list of fellow defenders, the latest of whom is the veteran, Michael Nelson.
Again, Hanlon insists he’s learned from each of his team-mates, and continues to do so, but revealed a few simple words from then captain Rob Jones as he prepared to make his debut are as valid today as they were then.
He said: “Rob came to me before the game, told me to relax, that it was just a game of football, that it wasn’t anything I hadn’t done before and it did help.”