Paul HANLON today insisted he won’t breathe easily until he and his team-mates have Hibs entirely clear of the threat of relegation.
Pat Fenlon’s side took a huge stride towards SPL safety with a hard-fought victory over Aberdeen, a win which leaves the Capital side needing just one point to secure their top-flight status.
The chance to do so comes on Monday night when basement outfit Dunfermline, now trailing Hibs by five points with only two games remaining, travel to Easter Road knowing they must win and then win again on the final day of the season when they play host to Kilmarnock.
Hanlon, however, is adamant that nobody in a green-and-white shirt is taking anything for granted as they are simply intent on looking after No. 1.
Such was their focus, Hanlon revealed, that no-one in the away dressing room at Pittodrie thought to ask how the Pars had fared that same evening in Inverness.
The Scotland Under-21 skipper said: “There was never a word mentioned about it. We were congratulating each other on our win and it was only ten minutes later when we were told their game had ended 0-0. We were too busy concentrating on ourselves, knowing that if we do our job then we’ll be safe.
“We took a huge stride towards that goal in Aberdeen. It’s now within touching distance, but the gaffer is brilliant at keeping our feet on the ground. We won’t get carried away and, to be honest, we began concentrating on Monday – another massive game for us – right away.”
Nevertheless, there was no hiding his relief following those defeats by Kilmarnock and St Mirren which had put a huge question mark over Hibs’ survival, Hanlon admitting Fenlon’s side had enjoyed a rare break when Dons defender Mark Reynolds turned Leigh Griffiths’ cross into his own net after just six minutes.
Hibs joy was doubled ten minutes later as Sean O’Hanlon, making his first start in more than two months after captain James McPake was ruled out through injury, glanced home Griffiths’ corner kick.
But Fenlon’s players – and the small but vociferous bunch of Hibs fans who had made the journey north – had to live on their nerves after Aberdeen striker Scott Vernon cut the deficit, and their anxiety was heightened as referee Calum Murray added four extra minutes to the game.
Hanlon said: “It was a great feeling at the end. The pressure was on going to Pittodrie, with not too many people expecting us to get the result.
“We got off to a flying start, which gave us something to hold on to and allowed us to relax a bit.
“In the previous two games, we’d put the pressure on Killie and Saints for long periods but didn’t manage to get a goal and ended up losing.
“The manager had spoken of us not getting that wee rub of the green you need, so we got a welcome slice of luck when the ball went in off their defender.”
Having partnered McPake at the heart of Hibs’ defence, Hanlon admitted he was delighted to see O’Hanlon play such a pivotal role in the victory, his team-mate having not featured at all in the club’s 12 previous games.
Hanlon appreciated the responsibility which had been placed on the former Everton, Swindon and MK Dons star’s shoulders with all the fans’ chat before the match having been how great a loss McPake would be and O’Hanlon no doubt aware that had Hibs lost, the on-loan Coventry City stopper’s absence would again be the main topic of conversation.
He said: “It’s tough when you come in, as Sean did, having not played for so long. But he was superb and scored a terrific goal. It was a great delivery from Leigh and when Sean goes up for corners he’s looking to score.
“All the talk had been about how big a player James has been for us, so that made it difficult for Sean, but he never lost a header or tackle all game. He was absolutely brilliant.”
Having gone two up, Hibs had chances to kill the game off with a third goal, only for Vernon to finally stir the home support, leaving the tongue-twisting duo of O’Hanlon and Hanlon, along with full-backs Matt Doherty and Pa Kujabi to repel everything the Dons threw at them thereafter.
Agreeing it had got a bit desperate at times, Hanlon said: “We were perhaps a bit unlucky not to get a third goal, but we always seem to make life difficult for ourselves. It was backs to the wall at times, swinging a boot to put the ball anywhere – which you are happy to do so long as it doesn’t end up in the back of your net.
“Having said that, though, while Aberdeen had a fair bit of pressure for spells, I thought we dealt with it quite well and didn’t allow them to really create anything.
“I don’t usually notice the board going up to indicate how much time is being added on, but I did on this occasion. But, to be honest, I didn’t think too much about it other than noting we had another four minutes to negotiate. Even so, it was a brilliant feeling to hear the final whistle go.”
Although insisting he can’t entirely relax until it’s mathematically certain Hibs have avoided the drop, Hanlon will enjoy the close-season break, a period in which he will reflect on the events at Easter Road over the course of the past ten months.
He said: “Put it this way, I’ll really enjoy my holiday. We’ve lived under pressure for weeks, all the negative headlines and being on a downer. It’s hard to take being constantly criticised. Earlier in the season, we were scoring goals but conceding too many. Lately, we’ve not lost a great number but we’ve not been scoring enough.
“It’s been a difficult season, but as soon as we are safe we will be delighted. But that target has yet to be achieved.”