Hanlon wants month to remember with Hibs and U21s

Paul Hanlon seeks to 'put things right' in cup. Picture: SNS
Paul Hanlon seeks to 'put things right' in cup. Picture: SNS
Have your say

A year ago Paul Hanlon enjoyed a fabulous February as Hibs embarked on a five-match winning streak to haul themselves clear of relegation trouble.

Today, 12 months on, the Easter Road star is looking for another month to remember for both club and country.

Hanlon will end February by leading Scotland’s Under-21 side out for their crucial European Championship qualifier against the Netherlands but, before then, he has important business to attend to at club level with Hibs facing crunch clashes against Celtic, Motherwell and Kilmarnock.

Like last year, the month has begun promisingly, Pat Fenlon’s side having emerged from matches against Killie and Aberdeen with two clean sheets, a place in the quarter-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup and a precious point in their battle against the drop secured.

Hanlon and his team-mates are, however, well aware that they remain very much in trouble, a single point ahead of basement outfit Dunfermline but comforted by the influx of new faces which has given renewed hope the threat of relegation can soon become something of the past.

And they are equally conscious that in a visit from SPL leaders Celtic – now favourites for a domestic treble after clocking up 17 successive victories – they’ll face the stiffest possible examination.

Coincidentally, though, Hibs were the last SPL side to deny Neil Lennon’s outfit a win, tenaciously holding out for a no-scoring draw in the east end of Glasgow only days after being thumped 4-1 by the same opposition in the Scottish Communities League Cup.

And, while wins rather than draws will obviously lift Hibs clear of trouble more quickly, another stalemate against the Hoops would be regarded by many as another indication that Fenlon is finally turning his side’s season around.

Central defender Hanlon said: “February was a big month for us last year and it’s just as important this time round.

“We’ve managed to get a couple of clean sheets and, if we can avoid conceding goals at one end and hopefully nick one or two at the other, then we’ll have something to build on.

“Obviously, Celtic will be the toughest of tests, they have great strikers and have been going great guns lately. But we also have important matches against Motherwell and Kilmarnock to follow, two very hard away games. We’ll try to get something at home from Celtic which is a massive task with them going so well but we are full of confidence and looking to push on.”

This time last year, the players then boss Colin Calderwood signed during the January transfer window had an immediate impact although they were unable to sustain the success they enjoyed throughout February and into March but now Hanlon hopes Fenlon’s captures, Eoin Doyle, George Francomb, James McPake, Matt Doherty, Roy O’Donovan, Jorge Claros, Pa Kujabi and Tom Soares can ensure happier times ahead.

He said: “January was always going to be big for the manager, a chance for him to get his players in. I’ve seen a few interviews in which he has said he’s happy with they ones he has brought to the club. All the new boys have a good pedigree and have come from good clubs and brought a bit of freshness.” On-loan Coventry City stopper McPake has had the greatest influence on Hanlon, many believing it was no coincidence the Hibs kid had his best match in months when paired with the former Livingston star in central defence for the Cup win over Killie. The pair were suspended for Saturday’s no-scoring draw with Aberdeen, McPake having been sent off on his debut at Ibrox and Hanlon after picking up a sixth booking of the season, but many eyebrows would be raised should they not be reunited this Sunday.

Hanlon said: “James has been excellent, it seems like he has been here forever. He’s been good with me, wee things I need to improve. He’s not shy, he says it how he sees it if there’s something he wants to say. I’m happy with that, if he doesn’t tell me then I’m going to keep doing the wrong things.”

McPake’s leadership qualities prompted Fenlon to hand him the skipper’s armband from the off but Hanlon, who began the season as vice-captain to Ian Murray, currently recovering from an operation, insisted he has no complaints at having to take a back seat in that regard.

He said: “I was never really made captain, only when Ian wasn’t playing so I’m not too disappointed. I enjoyed it but now I can concentrate on my own game. If it were to come somewhere down the line I’d be happy.”

Although his focus over the next fortnight will centre on all things Hibs, February 29 already looms large in his diary and that clash with the Netherlands when he and his Scotland team-mates will be hoping to repeat the victory they enjoyed against the young Dutch in Nijmegen in November.

Easter Road team-mate David Wotherspoon claimed the winner that night and another three points at St Mirren Park would put Billy Stark’s side in pole position to win Group Ten.

Hanlon was part of the last Under-21 squad which missed out on a place in the Euro finals, losing in a two-legged play-off to Iceland despite having topped their qualifying group – an experience the Hibs youngster is determined won’t be repeated this time.

He said: “It was heartbreaking to top the group and not make the finals. It’s hard enough to win the group and when you do that you expect to be in the finals rather than a play-off.

After a slow start to this campaign, home draws against Bulgaria and Austria sandwiching a 5-1 win over minnows Luxembourg, Hanlon admitted that unexpected win against the Dutch had given the Scots a boost for the rest of their campaign.

He said: “You know any time you play Holland they will have quality players in their team at whatever level. We were expecting them to be a good side and they were, so great credit to the boys for the win.

“If you’d offered me a draw before the game I’d have bitten your hand off, but now there’s great confidence going into the game coming up.”