Amid the stoppage-time chaos at Easter Road on Wednesday night, Paul Hanlon’s first start in almost three months was reduced to a mere footnote.
While Hibs’ goalless draw with Morton will be widely remembered for the on-field rammy that resulted in four red cards, for the centre-back it represented what he hopes will be the end of a period of mid-season frustration.
Up to and including the 3-0 home win over Dundee United on January 6, Hanlon was proud of the fact he had played in every single minute of Hibs’ competitive season. Having spent a month or so over the festive period playing through pain in his pelvic area, however, the influential defender was temporarily removed from the firing line to repair his body. An anticipated lay-off of three-to-four weeks soon grew into a few agonising months, leaving Hanlon a frustrated spectator as his colleagues continued on their rollercoaster journey towards the Championship title. After a cameo outing in the win over Falkirk last weekend, he was relieved to finally play a significant part in a match after lasting 87 minutes against nearest challengers Morton, who remain ten points off the pace in second.
“I’m delighted to be back because it took a bit longer than I’d hoped or expected,” he told the Evening News in his first interview since being sidelined. “For about four weeks before the Dundee United game, I was only able to train on the Friday and then play. It had been niggling away at me so I knew a break was going to have to come. After getting a good win in the Dundee United game, it seemed like the perfect time. The original plan was just to be out for about four weeks but I had a couple of setbacks and it’s taken a lot longer.
“It’s just a really frustrating injury because it’s so awkward to deal with. Day by day, it was a case of ‘is it feeling any better?’ If not, I’d just have to rest. It wasn’t as clear as getting back and doing work with the physio and knowing when I’d be back. It was really stop-start and frustrating.
“I had a similar problem when I was younger and I had an anti-inflammatory injection that cleared it up right away. We went down that route again this time and I was back running and nearly fit, but as soon as I started kicking the ball again, I could still feel it, so I knew it was time to book in for the operation. The surgeon said it could take anything between two and six weeks to get back after that, but obviously it’s been a bit longer.
“The first couple of weeks were fine because I thought I’d only be out for a few weeks but as time goes on, you’re sitting in the stand and it gets harder and harder. I missed two big games against Hearts as well, which was really tough.”
Hanlon, who hasn’t even had a development league run-out to get up to speed, is eager to continue his bid for match sharpness by retaining his place for tomorrow’s trip to Dunfermline. He admits he was flagging towards the end on Wednesday and wasn’t surprised when he was replaced by Jordon Forster, the man who inadvertently sparked the mass brawl as he was hacked down by Morton sinner Kudus Oyenuga.
“There was never any doubt in my head over whether I’d be back this season – it was just a case of giving it time,” said Hanlon. “There are still wee niggles with it but it’s manageable and it’s not restricting me at all. I’d imagine through playing games and being back involved, that will settle down. I just need to get a few more games to get my sharpness back.
“I felt fine fitness-wise. I could feel the injury niggling a wee bit. The manager asked me after about an hour how I was feeling so I knew I he probably wasn’t going to keep me on for the whole game.
I’ve not even played a 20s game so I’m just delighted to get those minutes under my belt. I’d played every minute of every game up until my injury so the injury might have given my legs the wee break that they might have needed. It’s just a case of trying to get the sharpness back now.
“I passed one out the park in the second half but that was just slackness and tiredness. I knew there would be a stage in the game where I’d probably hit a brick wall and have to try and grind through it. When you’re at that stage, things like that easy pass going wrong can creep in. It’s part of football and part of trying to get fit. I was thrown into a really big game and I’m just trying to find my feet.”
Hanlon’s value in the eyes of Neil Lennon was highlighted by the fact the manager was so keen to play him in key games against Falkirk and United before his lay-off and then restored him to the starting line-up for Wednesday’s high-stakes fixture when there were other options available. “It was a big boost that the manager threw me into a big game even though we’d just won another big match against Falkirk a few days earlier,” Hanlon said. “It gives you a lot of confidence knowing that the manager still has faith in you, especially after being out for so long.
“Wednesday felt like a breakthrough for me in terms of playing most of the game. I’m a footballer, so I just want to play games. When you’re working hard with the physio and then coming to watch the games on a Saturday, it’s not easy. There’s nothing better than being involved in the squad. I was delighted just to get on the bench and make an appearance against Falkirk last weekend. Being injured just reminds you how important playing football is to your life when you’ve been used to it for so long.”