From Hutchie to Hibs via Hampden - Hanlon's remarkable journey

Hibs captain Paul Hanlon celebrates his famous Scottish Cup derby goal at TynecastleHibs captain Paul Hanlon celebrates his famous Scottish Cup derby goal at Tynecastle
Hibs captain Paul Hanlon celebrates his famous Scottish Cup derby goal at Tynecastle | SNS Group
Club captain already fielding offers from Scottish Premiership rivals

Time marches on, teams move on. Players, however beloved, cannot carry on forever. But you get the distinct impression that Paul Hanlon wouldn’t have minded taking a crack at becoming history’s first eternal footballer … as long as it meant staying with Hibs.

As it transpires, Hanlon looks certain to play on, despite today’s hardly surprising news that he and long-time team-mate Lewis Stevenson will be leaving the club at the end of the season. It’s going to feel slightly odd, watching the current club captain play AGAINST Hibs next season. But do you doubt that he’ll be giving 100 per cent for his new team?

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Anyone familiar with Hanlon’s story will know that a love of the game has driven him to achieve mighty things. The former Hutchison Vale youngster – an attacking midfielder in his youth, believe it or not – had to work hard to earn himself a place in professional football. He’s been grinding ever since. Every single day.

When he looks back on his time as a Hibs player, Hanlon will not be short of highlights. Or, for that matter, experiences that could most charitably be described as challenging. Overall, he’ll be remembered for much more than just one magical day at Hampden. Even if his part in the 2016 Scottish Cup victory will forever bind him tightly to the players, coaches, directors and supporters there to witness the great curse being lifted in such dramatic fashion.

For Hanlon, every high and each low carries added impact, simply because he’s a fan, first and foremost. If he admits that becoming a first-team player required a mental switch, treating football as a job and trying to build a career, he’s never lost his love for the club.

As a kid who grew up in Hearts territory, with a back garden overlooking Saughton Enclosure, the young Hanlon was never likely to be anything but a Hibee. By the time he was old enough to stand up and see over the adults sitting in front of him, he was a regular at home and away games, travelling with family and friends.

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He idolised the players. Still gets a little fired up when talking about actually being there for the 3-2 win over AEK Athens at Easter Road back in 2001. This was always his club. But not always his team. Let’s explain.

Hanlon played all the way up to under-14 level with Hutchie, learning as much about becoming a responsible person as he did about playing football; at their best, grassroots community clubs are worth their weight in gold, when it comes to contributing to both the game and society in general. Between the lessons learned there and spending every minute of free time engaged in street football or pick-up games on any patch of available grass, with no age restrictions and zero adult supervision, he grew and matured.

After scoring 32 goals in his final season at Hutchison Vale, he was picked up by Hibs. And immediately dedicated himself to making the grade, taking instant pride in having his own jersey to wear every weekend.

He was handed a first-team debut at the age of 17 in Mixu Paatelainen’s first game as gaffer, a 3-0 Scottish Cup home win over Inverness. Apart from a brief loan at St Johnstone, he’s been in or around that first team pretty much ever since. An occasional left back and naturally left-sided centre-half, he’s often been one of those players whose best games go unnoticed.

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But nobody could ever overlook his role in the club’s Scottish Cup triumph. Indeed, without Hanlon’s contribution, Hibs may still have been waiting for a follow-up to their 1902 Cup win.

Hanlon and David Gray celebrated with the Scottish Cup on the victory parade.Hanlon and David Gray celebrated with the Scottish Cup on the victory parade.
Hanlon and David Gray celebrated with the Scottish Cup on the victory parade. | SNS Group

Hanlon’s sliding half volley at Tynecastle in February of 2016, a dramatic late equaliser right in front of the delirious away fans, earned Hibs a Scottish Cup quarter-final replay that had looked anything but likely as they trailed their city rivals 2-0 with just 10 minutes remaining. The rest, as they say, is history.

In and out of the team since Nick Montgomery’s arrival as manager, Hanlon may not be as quick as he once was. Even if he still managed to pop up on the left wing at one point in Dingwall on Saturday. It’s been obvious for a while that the new gaffer wasn’t set on the skipper as his first choice to partner Will Fish.

He’s been preparing for this day, graduating – and picking up the class medal, to boot – from Napier University with a BA Business and Enterprise in Sport degree in October. It says everything about his approach to education that, of everything he gained from the experience, the most important lesson – in his view – was granting him a deeper understanding of how much hard work goes into the non-football side of running a club.

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But he’s still only 34. No age for a centre-half. His ability to sniff out - and snuff out - danger doesn’t appear to have been diminished by the passing of years. He’s not short of offers. Even if the opportunity to retire as a on-club man, the sort of fairy tale ending afforded very few players in the modern game, is no longer on the table.