Paul Hanlon: Cup final a factor at Ibrox – but only for fans

Paul Hanlon, right, and Lewis Stevenson celebrate as David Gray lifts the Scottish Cup
Paul Hanlon, right, and Lewis Stevenson celebrate as David Gray lifts the Scottish Cup
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Fifteen months on and the fall-out from Hibs’ historic Scottish Cup final triumph at the expense of Rangers has far from disappeared.

Easter Road defender Paul Hanlon admits the events of that day will more than likely play a part tomorrow as the two clubs face each other for the first time since that Hampden showdown.

Hanlon is keen to start at Ibrox tomorrow after being given the nod against Partick last weekend

Hanlon is keen to start at Ibrox tomorrow after being given the nod against Partick last weekend

However, Hanlon insisted memories of finally ending that 114-year wait for the cup and the aftermath as thousands of Hibs fans flooded onto the pitch will only be a factor for supporters – adamant both sets of players will be simply focused on the battle for three points.

He said: “It’s always lively there from the very start but I think everyone is expecting that wee bit added edge among the supporters.

“The fact Neil Lennon is now our manager and Anthony Stokes [who scored two of Hibs’ goals in that 3-2 final win] coming back means there’s definitely a few side stories but all that matters is two teams playing football against each other.

“It’s always great to play at Ibrox. It’s a great stadium and one of the benefits of being promoted is that we are going to go to places like that and Celtic Park on a more regular basis.

“It’s something to embrace and enjoy. It will be the first Premiership match between us for a good number of years so that will help add to the atmosphere which will make it all the better. As a player, these are the games you play for and everyone is excited about it.”

Rangers, too, have switched managers in the interim period, Pedro Caixinha taking over from Mark Warburton and sparking an influx of players such as Bruno Alves, Daniel Caridias, Alfredo Morelos and Fabio Cardoso along with more familiar names such as Ryan Jack and Graham Dorrans.

Hanlon agreed that arguably Rangers will know more about Hibs than he and his team-mates about them and insisted the settled squad the Easter Road outfit enjoys bodes well for the season ahead. Lennon needed only to make a few tweaks – the most prominent being the return of Stokes for a third spell in the Capital – with former Dundee United striker Simon Murray, Danny Swanson from St Johnstone and Lithuanian internationalists Deivydas Matulevicious and Vykintas Slivka the new faces signed over the summer.

The 27-year-old said: “There are some who have been at Ibrox for a while so we obviously know them but the gaffer did some video stuff yesterday and there wil be more in the build-up so I am sure we’ll see what we need to see of the boys they have brought in.

“But I’d rather be in a team that has a solid unit. Most of us have been together for a few years now. Stokesy has come back but knows the club while Efe Ambrose and Ofir Marciano signed permanent deals but were here last season.

“There’s not too many brand new faces and I’d rather be in that situation. I cannot remember a time all over the pitch when we’ve had so many options. But it is good. Everyone is working hard for their position – that makes a good team as with that competiton you have to be at your best all the time.”

Stokes made an immediate impression third time round to no-one’s surprise, scoring twice on Tuesday against Ayr United in his first start as Hibs cruised into the quarter-finals of the Betfred Cup while Murray has effectively silenced those who questioned his arrival by notching nine goals in just six games so far.

Hanlon, though, was in no doubt as to the flame-haired forward’s attributes having had to cope with his all-action style when facing United.

He said: “With his energy levels, Simon is like a defender despite being at the other end of the pitch. He’s a joy to have in the side when you are at the back. Because he’s putting in so much work, the ball is getting nowhere near you.

“I’ve played against him for a few seasons and he’s never going to change the way he plays. He’s a menace to play against, even in training. He’s relentless. As a defender, you can’t rest on the ball because he’s in there nipping away at you.

“People were asking did he have what it takes to step up but he’s hitting the back of the net for fun. He’s full of confidence and he seems to get stronger when he scores a goal. Rather than rest on his laurels, straight away he’s working the central defenders trying to get the ball back.

“Perhaps it’s because he came into the professional game late that he’s desperate to grasp the chance which he has done.”

If Murray is a somewhat recent newcomer to top-flight football, former Hibs striker Kenny Miller has proved to be an enduring force at Ibrox, still Rangers’ main man at the age of 37 in his third spell with the Glasgow club and, Hanlon insisted, remains the one for Lennon’s players to watch.

He said: “I used to watch Kenny playing for Hibs when I was young. He has had a great career, definitely someone any youngster wanting to be a professional football player or coming through the ranks can look up to and see if you work hard constantly, as he has done, in every game you will get your rewards.

“Kenny has looked after himself, done the right things and to still be the main man for a big club like Rangers at his age means he’s someone we have to look out for. He’s someone everybody in the Scottish game looks up to. Kenny came into our dressing-room at Hampden after we’d won the cup and congratulated everyone. It was a nice touch. He’s a top professional.”

Such is the competition for places in central defence at Easter Road with Darren McGregor, Ambrose, Hanlon, Liam Fontaine and the up-and-coming teenager Ryan Porteous giving Lennon plenty of food for thought, Hanlon admitted he’s just delighted to be back in contention after being sidelined for seven months by a pelvic problem.

He played his first full 90 minutes as Hibs marked their return to the Premiership after a three-year absence with a 3-1 victory over Partick Thistle only to be rested as his team-mates cruised to that 5-0 win against Ayr.

Hanlon said: “The manager showed great faith in putting me on from the start which I didn’t think he would do considering I’d only played 15 minutes of first-team football in pre-season. It was a big call and the easy decision might have been to leave me out. I didn’t play against Ayr as the gaffer thought it would be too much and he didn’t want to risk a setback. I was happy with that – provided he plays me 
tomorrow.”