A popular figure in Leith, his stature has only grown in the months he’s missed due to an Achilles injury as firstly, Kevin Nisbet and, latterly, the entire team struggled without his aerial ability, hold-up play and goalscoring touch. He is back in full training now and in contention to play on Sunday, so the timing of the contract extension (until 2024) could scarcely come at a better time with morale a little low following a streak of four defeats.
Recent frustrations with the team’s performance spilled over into the club’s Twitter mentions when contract extensions were announced for Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson earlier this week. Although, in fairness to supporters, the lack of investment in the team’s defence has been a major bugbear for some time with many questioning why a 36-year-old, in the form of club stalwart Darren McGregor, is still clearly the third-best centre-back at a club with aspirations of playing group-stage football in Europe next season.
Hanlon and Stevenson will forever remain club legends for their part in the 2016 heroics, but fans believe the club should have improved upon the pair (and McGregor) in the years since the Scottish Cup final. That said, though the grumblings are understandable, they may be a little misguided.
For starters, there has been an improvement at left-back as Stevenson has got older and his powers have waned. Josh Doig is undeniably first choice at the position and has been since the start of last season. Even at 19, he’s one of the best full-backs in the country.
Could Hibs do better than Stevenson as a back-up? Maybe? But as anyone who has spent time with the 33-year-old will testify, he’s got a strong character, terrific work habits and exactly the type of influence you want in a dressing room – and he still does a job when called upon. Besides, it’s not easy to convince an experience pro to come into a new club and play back-up to a kid, while it also would make no sense to Hibs from a business perspective to have, arguably, their most valuable asset sitting on the bench for extended periods. Doig is No.1 and Hibs will look to sign a replacement for him, with Stevenson remaining as back-up, when the time comes to cash in.
As for Hanlon. Yes, he has his doubters, but as far as this writer can see he’s clearly still one of the best dozen centre-backs in this country. It’s easy enough to say “we need to improve upon X, Y or Z”. It’s a lot tougher to actually go out and do it on a restrictive budget when you already have someone in-house as good, if not better, than the vast majority of plausible targets.
Even if Hibs should be doing more than settling for loans from England when it comes to trying to strengthen the centre-back corps, it would still have been daft to allow Hanlon to leave for nothing next summer, especially when he played such a major role in Hibs fans having, as the song goes, their day out at Hampden.