Paul Hanlon’s promise has never been in doubt since he was first handed his Hibs debut as a 17-year-old by Mixu Paatelainen almost eight years ago.
He was monitored by scouts from Liverpool soon after, then handed a five-year deal at Hibs as a 19-year-old before captaining the side as a 21-year-old under Colin Calderwood. Yet, even though he has already accumulated a remarkable 250 appearances as a 25-year-old, no-one can say it’s all been plain sailing for the boyhood Hibs fan.
He played through a succession of managerial changes and underwhelming league campaigns in the early part of this decade, while also being at the heart of Hibs’ defence when they were blitzed by Hearts in the 2012 Scottish Cup final. Appreciation hasn’t always been forthcoming from the stands.
Despite his baptism of fire as a young Scottish left-back-turned-centre-half, long-time friend and team-mate Lewis Stevenson said there was a strong argument that Hanlon could have been his club’s player of the year in each season that he has been a regular. However, it is only under Alan Stubbs over the past season and a bit that he has truly flourished and silenced the doubters.
While young pups like John McGinn, Liam Henderson and Jason Cummings hog the limelight for their work further up the work, it is the relatively unheralded name of Hanlon that is virtually first on the teamsheet. Even with stern competition from Liam Fontaine and Darren McGregor, who have been rotated in recent weeks, the homegrown academy graduate remains in the side. There have been ten clean sheets in the 17 games he has started this season. In the only game he missed, when he sat out the home match against Dumbarton through injury, it was notable that his side conceded twice.
“Paul’s performances have been very consistent since day one,” head coach Stubbs told the Evening News. “He’s been excellent for me. He’s very reliable. He’s not a ranter or bawler – he just goes about his job quietly but very efficiently.
“The clean sheets we’ve had were a big plus for the team and the defenders personally. His form has been to a really high level. His reading of the game is very good and his performances have been to a very high standard. We’re really happy with his form, and so should he be.”
Stubbs, a former centre-back himself, believes Hanlon has benefited from becoming more experienced and expects him to grow into an even more accomplished defender in the years ahead. “Defenders always get better with age, and I think we’re seeing that with Paul,” he said. “Ideally you need a level of experience because once you get that experience, you put yourself in positions more consistently to stop the opposition and Paul’s done that consistently since I came in.
“He’s getting better and better. He’s just passed 250 games, which is a lot of games for a player of his age. He’s only 25 and I think he’s only going to continue improving. Defenders mature with each passing year. When they get to 26-27, you see defenders playing with their heads. They read situations better and start to think where the ball is going to go rather than reacting after the ball is already there. That all comes through experience. Paul’s got a good future.”
Where once Hanlon was viewed in some quarters as too soft to play centre-back, now he is regularly seen dominating attackers and generally looking at ease. Stubbs feels his efforts to become a more professional athlete are now shining through.
“He’s grown in stature, both in terms of his performances and through the conditioning programme we’ve put in place for him,” he said. “He’s adhered to it very professionally. He’s very diligent in the work that he does. He’s very conscious of his diet, his body fat and his physique and what he should be doing to look after himself.
“He deserves the credit for his form at the moment. He’s become more diligent off the pitch in the way he looks after himself and it’s no coincidence that he looks much stronger. He looks as if he copes with the physical element of defending much more comfortably.”
Hanlon’s contract runs out at the end of the season, meaning he could sign a pre-contract elsewhere in January, but Stubbs intends to address that situation in the near future.
“We know he’s out of contract at the end of the season and it’s something we’ll look at but we’ve got pressing issues to do with football matches at the moment which is the main priority,” he said. “It’s inevitable that you want to keep your better players, and Paul falls into that category. I’m sure we’ll have those discussions as we move forward.”