Hibs’ Paul Hanlon says SPL survival comes first

Paul Hanlon
Paul Hanlon
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If the hype the events of the weekend is to be believed, there’s only one match of any real interest remaining in this season’s football calendar.

But as much as the fans of both Hibs and Hearts are salivating at the thought of the first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final for more than 110 years, next month’s Hampden showdown between the Capital clubs has been deemed a taboo subject at Easter Road.

Delighted as anyone to have such a match to look forward to after barely five months in the managerial hot-seat, boss Pat Fenlon’s over-riding priority remains to ensure Hibs’ survival in the SPL.

So while the celebrations which followed the 2-1 victory over Aberdeen in the first of the weekend’s semi-finals were enjoyed by one and all, Fenlon’s squad returned to training yesterday morning with the focus entirely on the first of their five post-split matches against Kilmarnock on Sunday.

The Scottish Cup has provided a welcome distraction in what everyone at Easter Road acknowledges has been a far from vintage season, Hibs locked in a desperate battle to avoid relegation with Dunfermline.

Fenlon’s side, however, enter the final straight with a seven- point advantage over the Pars although, as Paul Hanlon conceded, top-flight safety has not yet been secured.

The Scotland Under-21 skipper said: “It’s been a long, hard season but we’ve managed to get ourselves that wee cushion over Dunfermline going into the final few matches. It’s obviously nice to have but we also know a couple of bad results and it could quickly vanish.

“We want to try to put the relegation battle to bed as soon as possible so our full attention is now on Sunday’s match and getting another three points. Obviously we were all delighted to beat Aberdeen but there was no wild party afterwards. We celebrated in front of our fans, the dressing-room was buzzing as was the coach ride back to Edinburgh but there was no all-night party or anything like it.

“Some of the boys went out, others just went home, we all just did our own thing as we enjoyed Sunday and Monday off. But we came in yesterday ready for what lies ahead.”

A victory away to Inverness – so long a bogey ground to Hibs until Garry O’Connor’s goal at the beginning of the season ended that particular hoodoo – and a home draw with Motherwell helped ease the relegation worries but Hanlon believes the nature of that triumph in the Highlands and again in the semi-final signal a new-found resolve among Fenlon’s stars.

A goal down to Caley on the hour mark, Hanlon himself equalised before O’Connor put Hibs ahead only for Johnny Hayes to haul Terry Butcher’s side level before Leigh Griffiths struck the winner. Against Aberdeen it was a similar story, Rory Fallon’s wonder strike cancelling out O’Connor’s third-minute goal, only for Fenlon’s players to dig deep and claim a late winner through Griffiths again.

Hanlon said: “I think we have shown great character in recent games to win them when we needed to. Against Inverness and Aberdeen we had our setbacks but in each game we showed our determination to keep going and to get late winners both times.

“We’ve got five important matches coming up before the Cup final and we’ll have to be at our best in each of them and show the same determination and grit to come out on top.

“But we’ve been working under pressure for months and I think that’s what stood us in good stead going into the semi-final.”

Astonishingly, Hibs have managed just one league win at Easter Road all season – the triumph over St Johnstone in September actually the only one they’ve enjoyed in some 14 months at home – but Hanlon insisted there would be no better time to claim a second than this weekend.

Hibs will face Killie with the advantage of knowing the outcome of Dunfermline’s trip to take on St Mirren in Paisley the day before, a scenario they’ve enjoyed a couple of times in recent weeks and one which he hopes they can put to good use again.

He said: “I think we’ve been able to relax that wee bit having played after Dunfermline but regardless of how their games turn out it’s up to us to look after ourselves, if we can continue to keep picking up points then there’s little they can do about it.

“We all know it’s been a poor season as far as we’ve been concerned and we are as disappointed as our fans that it’s been the way it has. The Cup run has given everyone something to cheer about and it’s great to think we have a final to look forward to, particularly against our biggest rivals.

“But the manager has consistently said his priority is to make sure we are playing SPL football next season. We’ve worked hard for months to get ourselves into a better position than we were in and there’s no way we are going to throw it all away now by dreaming about a game which is still a month away.

“Part of the reason why we’ve found ourselves at the wrong end of the table has been our very poor record at Easter Road. It’s a terrible statistic to have won just once at home but another win on Sunday would go a long way to helping us to stay ahead of Dunfermline.”

The goals of O’Connor and Griffiths – the pair have scored five between them in what has been a month to remember so far – have gone a long way to easing Hibs’ worries as well, of course, as earning a shot at ending Hibs’ 110-year wait for the Scottish Cup and Hanlon believes the strikers have caught fire at just the right time.

He said: “The two of them have been brilliant recently. They love knocking them in for Hibs and hopefully they’ll keep up that record between now and the end of the season.”