Paul Hanlon has called on Hibs to keep their focus over the next two-and-a-half months as they bid to ensure their steady improvement over the course of the season culminates in success.
Less than a year after relegation from the Premiership, the resurgent Easter Road side are in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup and five points clear of pre-season title favourites Rangers in the battle for second place in the Championship.
With just one defeat in their last 26 games and eight wins from their last nine, Hibs appear to be the most upwardly-mobile side in the battle to secure promotion through the play-offs. However, centre-back Hanlon insists their fine form over the past six months will mean little if they are not back in the Premiership next season.
“Things are building up nicely in the league and the cup, but we’ve not achieved anything yet,” he told the Evening News. “Hopefully we are building up to having a good end to the season, but our good run will count for nothing if we’re not successful at the end of it.
“You can sense that there’s a real focus and determination in the dressing-room. Confidence is the highest it’s ever been and everyone’s excited about the games we’ve got coming up and focused on having a successful end to the season. Everything’s geared towards being successful and getting the club to where it belongs. The most important thing is that we maintain our form because you don’t achieve anything in March.”
Hibs trail champions-elect Hearts by 17 points, largely due to a slow start to the season, but Hanlon believes their fine recent form suggests they will be a good addition to the Premiership if they are promoted through the play-offs. “Any other year, we’d be going for the title in this form, but obviously Hearts started great and have kept it going the whole season,” he said. “I don’t think anyone expected them to run away with it like they have, but all credit to them. If we’d had longer together as a squad at the start of the season, I think we’d definitely have been better equipped to mount a title challenge, but it’s easy to say that now.
“We started slowly and we’re probably paying the price for that in terms of the title, but the main thing is that there’s still a chance for us to get promoted and that’s what we’re focusing on. If we do get up, I’d like to think this squad is good enough for the Premiership. We’ve got good individuals and we’re working great as a team, so if we are in the Premiership with this squad, we’d go into it confident that we could do well. We’ve just got to get there first.”
One potential fly in the ointment for Hibs is the appointment of Stuart McCall as Rangers manager this week. The Ibrox side had won only three of their last ten games under the embattled Kenny McDowall. However, McCall’s arrival is widely expected to have a galvanising effect on Hibs’ main rivals for second place.
“I think at any place, a new manager coming in brings an immediate lift,” he said. “That’s not something we’re paying too much attention to, though. We’re just focusing on maintaining our own form and seeing where that takes us. If we win at Cowdenbeath this weekend, it means we’re guaranteed to be ahead of Rangers going into next weekend’s game against them. That would be massive.”
As a centre-back, Hanlon has had to show his adaptable qualities this season as head coach Alan Stubbs has alternated between 3-5-2 and variations of 4-4-2. The 25-year-old has been utilised as the central figure in a three-man backline and is used as the right-sided centre-back when paired with fellow left-footer Liam Fontaine in the middle of a four. “The manager’s got us working well in both formations so it’s great to have that in our locker that we can play both ways,” he said.
“As a centre-half, it’s slightly different playing in a three to playing in a two. I’m normally in the middle of the three so I find it easy enough to adapt. The main difference is that I’ve got the added security of having a centre-half either side of me.
“Everyone at the back does their bit in terms of organising, but when you’re in the middle you can obviously see both sides and are in a better place to organise the two either side of you.
“When I first played on the right, it took a couple of weeks to get used to. Your body shape’s a bit different and you’re facing the other way to what you normally would, so it’s a bit awkward at first, but I’m more than used to it now. I did it a couple of times with Scotland Under-21s. If I played beside Danny Wilson, it was always me on the right. I’m confident enough on my right foot so it’s not been a problem.”