How persistence made Paul Hanlon a leader at Hibs

Paul Hanlon, pictured at the Hibernian Training Centre at East Mains. Picture: SNS Group
Paul Hanlon, pictured at the Hibernian Training Centre at East Mains. Picture: SNS Group
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A 3-1 defeat away to Partick Thistle on 15 March, 2014. For most Hibs fans it was just another dreary day on the slow and torturous path towards relegation from the Scottish Premiership.

It was also the last time Paul Hanlon pulled on a Hibs shirt in the 2013/14 campaign. He could only watch as the club lost seven of their last eight league games to finish in the relegation play-off position before dropping out of the top tier following defeat to Hamilton in the play-off final.

Hanlon missed the final few games of the 2013/14 season, including the play-off against Hamilton. Picture: SNS Grou

Hanlon missed the final few games of the 2013/14 season, including the play-off against Hamilton. Picture: SNS Grou

A solitary league win would have likely sufficed for Hibs to ensure survival and the presence of Hanlon would have made a notable difference.

With him in the side, they had won eight league games; when he was missing the club lost nine of ten.

Without him Hibs fell into a deeper trance and sleepwalked to join rivals Hearts in the second tier. He was the only choice for the player of the year award for that fateful season.

Despite the pain and humiliation of relegation, the knee injury set in motion a chain of events that were hugely beneficial for the club.

Hanlon's late, late equaliser against Hearts paved the way for Hibs' path to Scottish Cup glory. Picture: SNS Group

Hanlon's late, late equaliser against Hearts paved the way for Hibs' path to Scottish Cup glory. Picture: SNS Group

Would there have been the wins at Ibrox? The recent derby record? The late goal at Tynecastle? The Scottish Cup?

Missing those games allowed Hibs to hit rock bottom before setting out on a journey, an upward curve - one which Hanlon has been an integral part of.

The 28-year-old’s standing at the club has only been strengthened in the past couple of months with the announcement of his testimonial and the imminent signing of a contract extension which will keep him at Easter Road until 2022.

Previously, such an extension would have been met with indifference. This one is widely praised as both good business by the club, and richly deserved by Hanlon.

Hanlon celebrates beating Rangers 3-2 at Ibrox in August last year. Picture: SNS Group

Hanlon celebrates beating Rangers 3-2 at Ibrox in August last year. Picture: SNS Group

Manager Neil Lennon has been effusive in his praise for the centre-back on numerous occasions this season.

“You aren’t at a club like Hibs, Celtic or Rangers for ten years and not considered to be a top player,” the Hibs head coach said earlier this month.

“I think Paul is getting better. He’s hardly put a foot wrong this season, he’s played so well. He’s a modern centre-half, he is comfortable on the ball, quick, and he heads the ball in both boxes so I am delighted with him.”

It has taken time for Hanlon to reach such a stage in his career. A consistency of performance. A defender who can be relied on.

When he joined Hibs from Hutchison Vale he was an attacking midfielder who was quickly converted to a defender.

Throughout his career it has been clear that this is a centre-back who grew up with the ball at his feet looking to create and play, rather than spoil and repel.

A frequent, but not unwarranted, criticism that dogged Hanlon until very recently was the ease at which he was bullied by strikers. Even when he was 24, 25 years of age there was an air of naivety, even while being recognised as a talented footballer.

He, more than anyone, perhaps epitomised Hibs’ soft centre.

Progression, as well as that spell in the Championship, has helped to virtually eradicate that issue, for both player and team.

A lot of credit has to go to Alan Stubbs for his work in instilling a stronger, more resilient mentality in individual players and throughout the team. He introduced Hanlon to the back-three system, the player having previously only played as one of two centre-backs in a back four, or at full-back.

Speaking in 2014, Hanlon said: “The 3-5-2 feels good. We feel solid and compact, and the way we’re hitting teams on the break is good.

“You could see that at Ibrox: the goals came from quick movements up the pitch and we’re catching teams out. Hopefully it continues, but it all starts from having a solid base at the back.”

This system gives Hanlon a bit more freedom to play football and takes a bit of pressure away from the constant duels against strikers. It is one which Lennon has carried on at Easter Road and what Hanlon said four years ago still rings true today.

Not only has Lennon kept a semblance of continuity but he has evolved Hibs. Both Hanlon and Efe Ambrose are encouraged to play from the back and it says a lot about the way Hibs play that they have the aforementioned duo, Lewis Stevenson, Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn in the top-20 most frequent passers in the Scottish Premiership.

Hanlon has revelled in his left-sided centre-back role, clearly a player enjoying his football. He has carried the ball forward with confidence, in a style redolent of another Hibs leader; Pat Stanton.

He has popped up in left-wing roles, brought balance to the defence and chipped in with the odd, often vital, goal.

He is also in the top-20 players for number of defensive duels, interceptions and aerial duels. It emphasises his own progression as defender with improvement all around him.

Previously, he partnered the likes of Michael Nelson, Sean O’Hanlon and Ryan McGivern in the back-line. Now he enjoys the company of Ambrose, Darren McGregor and, until recently, Liam Fontaine.

His form across the past few seasons has dispelled the claim that Hibs is ‘his level’. A bizarre slight, considering the difficulty to reach such a level in football.

More than anything he could have moved on and developed quicker elsewhere, especially on the continent where his style and qualities are perhaps better suited.

Any perceived lack of ambition can be viewed as loyalty, especially in this climate of professional football where players are always looking for their next move, next contract.

“Starting off as a 16-year-old leaving school it’s something I could only dream of – playing for the club I supported for so many years,” he told the club’s website following the announcement of his testimonial.

While club captain David Gray has been sidelined through injury, Hanlon has been the obvious choice to take the armband.

The connection he has with the club, similar to that of long-serving defender Lewis Stevenson, is underrated. When things are going bad on the pitch they can take the brunt of fans’ feelings but they are totems, individuals fans can relate to in the stands. Leaders. Role models.

It has been a slow process but Hanlon is truly now a leader and a legend.