Paul Hanlon’s stock level continues to rise. At 26 years old, he may have already fitted in more games than many players manage in an entire career, but the feeling is that the defender is ready to go from strength to strength as he enters his peak years. Head coach Alan Stubbs suggested as much to the Evening News shortly after the burgeoning centre-back headed the winner against Rangers in November.
As if helping Hibs to 14 clean sheets in his 26 appearances this season wasn’t enough of a contribution, Hanlon provided further indication of his value by sparking pandemonium among the away support with a stoppage-time equaliser in Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie with Hearts at Tynecastle. Not only is he defending magnificently, he is also popping up with season-defining goals.
The widely-held perception of Hanlon is that he is in the form of his life under Stubbs. Yet ask anyone who has worked closely with him throughout a roller-coaster, character-building eight years in the fist-team at his boyhood club and they will tell you that even when Hibs were in darker places than they are now, the ongoing development of Hanlon provided some shimmering light.
James McPake was first introduced to him four years ago, when, at the age of 22, he had already captained both his club and Scotland Under-21s. The pair spent two-and-a-half seasons together, and in their one full campaign as centre-back partners, Hibs were top of the league in November before eventually finishing mid-table under Pat Fenlon.
“I’m not surprised at how well Paul is doing,” McPake told the Evening News. “I’ve heard people talking about how well he’s been doing this season, but, if I’m honest, I don’t think he has gone to a new level in the last couple of seasons, because I could see how good he was when I was at Hibs.
“When I left after we got relegated, somebody asked me who I would take if I could get anybody out of Hibs, and Paul was the first one that came to mind. He was always the one that impressed me from the moment I arrived there. We built up a good partnership, particularly when I was able to stay fit.”
Hanlon, who only turned 26 last month, already has more than 250 starts under his belt for Hibs. Since being given his debut by Mixu Paatelainen, he has worked under six permanent managers and in teams of varying fortunes. Along with Lewis Stevenson – the other long-time survivor at Hibs – Hanlon is now flourishing amid the harmony that has returned to the club under Stubbs over the past season-and-a-half.
“It’s a massive plus that he’s been able to come through the difficult times at Hibs,” said McPake. “He’s playing in a good team and it looks like it’s going to be a successful team under Alan Stubbs. From speaking to people there, everybody loves Alan Stubbs – Paul’s benefitting from being part of a settled club. He’s played in a lot of big games and come through a lot of tough times at Hibs. He’s got plenty experience of the good and the bad. He’s a real asset to Hibs.
“Another of his big strengths is that he doesn’t miss many games. He’s been a mainstay of the club for the past six years. I’ve heard people say he’s not aggressive enough, but why does he need to be when his positioning is so good? When he needs to be physical, he will be physical, and he can stamp his authority on a striker, but it’s a skill in itself that he doesn’t need to be like that all the time. He’s got a really good brain for a defender and he’s as good as a midfielder on the ball. He was great to play beside and we had a good understanding.”
McPake believes full international status will eventually come Hanlon’s way. “When I arrived at Hibs, he was the Scotland Under-21 captain,” he said. Probably the biggest surprise for me is that he hasn’t gone on to get into the full Scotland squad. I said years ago I thought he’d play for Scotland and I still think he will.”
Perhaps given his association with the club through some difficult periods, Hanlon hasn’t always enjoyed the exalted status he currently commands among the Hibs fanbase. However, there has never been any doubt among team-mates and managers about his value to the team.
“It would only be supporters who might have under-appreciated Paul in the past, because it certainly wasn’t the players or the managers,” said McPake. “I had a great relationship with Pat Fenlon and I can safely say he appreciated Paul. Him and Lewis have more than 500 games between them – every manager seems to play them. In the dressing-room, if you ask any player at Hibs over the years to name two players who’d be guaranteed to be in the side, it would be Paul and Lewis. When I was there, I always wanted Paul to be in the team. If he was out for any reason, it was a miss for the team and for me not having him beside me. It sounds like I’m just talking up a mate, but I honestly have never heard anybody in football say a bad word about him as a player. He’s been one of my favourite partners to play beside.”
McPake and Hanlon both watched on helplessly as Hibs slipped out of the Premiership in meek fashion under Terry Butcher two years ago. McPake was sidelined since October of the 2013/14 campaign and didn’t play at all under the Englishman, but Hanlon was viewed as a key member of that team. At the point when he suffered a season-ending injury in mid-March, Hibs sat seventh in the league, seven points clear of the relegation play-off place in which they ultimately finished. The rest is history.
“I think Paul and I being out for the end of that season was huge,” said McPake. “That’s not meant as a dig at the guys who were in the team, but I still stand by it – if Paul and I were fit, we’d have stayed in the division, particularly Paul. I’d been out for a long part of that season so I wasn’t such a big miss at the end of the season, but Paul getting injured at that stage was a huge blow. I don’t think anybody at the club would say otherwise – he was a mainstay and a calming influence. He would have made the difference in terms of keeping Hibs up. Even though he’s not the captain at Hibs, he’s a leader.”
Whether Hanlon goes on to become permanent captain at Hibs remains to be seen. He is out of contract in the summer – a situation he has never previously been in – and given his physique, form, experience and relative youthfulness, he is sure to attract interest from elsewhere. Hibs have opened talks and are hopeful of tying him down on a new deal.
“I’m amazed that he’s running out of contract in the summer,” said McPake. “I’d have thought something would have been done by now but I’m sure it will. Every single Hibs fan will want him signed up. There will be teams in this country and in England who will be having a look at him. If he left he’d be a massive loss.
“You can’t legislate for injuries, but you look at his record and the fact he hardly misses any games is always a plus for any club looking at a player. You’re almost guaranteed 40 games a season out of Paul, which is a big thing.
“I’d imagine he’ll be more than happy at Hibs. He’s a boyhood fan who has come through the ranks and he loves the club. Knowing Paul and how professional he is, he’ll be fully concentrated on the fact Hibs are still involved in three competitions. The contract stuff will be right at the back of his mind. If he keeps playing the way he is, he knows he’ll be fine either way, so he can just focus on his football and make a decision about his future whenever the time comes to deal with it.”