Hibs upheaval hits home as Paul Hanlon heads back to Ayr

If Paul Hanlon needs any reminder as to the upheaval which has taken place at Easter Road over the past year or so, it will come if he glances round the away dressing-room at Somerset Park this afternoon as Hibs prepare to take on Ayr United.

Saturday, 10th March 2012, 12:17 pm

Fourteen months ago, Hanlon sat in the same dressing-room surrounded by the likes of Graeme Smith, Michael Hart, Ian Murray, Francis Dickoh, John Rankin, Kevin McBride, Liam Miller, Colin Nish, Derek Riordan and Darry Duffy.

Today all but Murray are gone, but with Hibs club skipper still recovering from hip injury, Hanlon remains the sole survivor from that ill-fated night in January of last year when a Mark Roberts goal was enough to send Hibs crashing out of the Scottish Cup at the hands of a side then in the Second Division.

Brian Reid’s side have an opportunity to pull off a repeat of that giant-killing act as the clubs meet again, this time in the quarter final of the competition, but while the surroundings will be vaguely familiar to Hanlon, some of those in green and white will be a little less so.

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As he pulls on his strip and boots no-one would be surprised if Hanlon were to reflect on the changes which have taken place, the Scotland Under-21 captain arguably playing in a fourth different Hibs side since that night.

Then-boss Colin Calderwood wasted no time following last season’s shock in making full use of the transfer window, shipping in Matt Thornhill, Victor Palsson, Akpo Sodje, Richie Towell, Jakub Divis, Martin Scott and, a little later, Ricardo Vaz Te.

Initially, the wholesale changes appeared to have worked, Hibs clocking up a run of five successive wins but, ultimately, the Capital outfit slid slowly but surely to tenth place in the SPL table, their worst finish for thirteen years, leaving Calderwood to “clear the decks” in preparation for the current season.

Smith, Dickoh, Rankin, McBride, Miller, Nish. Riordan, Duffy, Vaz Te and Divis all departed as had Merouane Zemmama during the previous transfer window, paving the way for an emotional return to Easter Road for both Ivan Sproule and Garry O’Connor as they were joined by Sean O’Hanlon, Isaiah Osbourne, Leigh Griffiths and Junior Agogo.

Edwin de Graaf became a belated victim of Calderwood’s “second revolution,” but as it failed to have the desired impact, the former Scotland defender was sacked and replaced by Irishman Pat Fenlon who wasted little time in instigating his own plan, Thornhill and Agogo quickly departing to be followed by Palsson and Sodje.

In have come Eoin Doyle, James McPake, Roy O’Donovan, Matt Doherty, George Francomb, Jorge Claros, Tom Soares and Pa Kujabi in a bid to win a battle against the threat of relegation, the early signs, as in a year ago, promising with Hibs having now opened up a four point gap on basement outfit Dunfermline while giving their fans something to cheer about in the cup by reaching the last eight.

The pace of change has been breathtaking, as Hanlon admitted, and looks certain to continue apace in the summer with the vast majority of Fenlon’s squad either out-of-contract – Graham Stack, Mark Brown, Murray, Lewis Stevenson, O’Connor among them – or, in the case of McPake, O’Donovan, Doherty, Francomb, Griffiths, Soares and Towell, seeing their loan deals come to an end.

Hanlon said: “There have been massive changes since our last game with Ayr United. Ian Murray played that night but is currently injured while Callum Booth came on for me during the game, that’s about the only two still here I remember playing in the game.”

The young defender, though, believes the fact so many of his new team-mates will have travelled to the west coast unburdened by the memory of what happened last time round can work in Hibs favour. He said: “Had it been the same squad I think it might have gone one of two ways, you’d worry about being beaten again or be right up for it to put things right. But now there is a freshness, all everyone is really looking forward to is getting us into the semi-final. Everyone knows how long it has been at this club and it’s something we have a great chance to put right if we go about it properly.”

Hanlon, though, insisted he was under no illusions as to how tough Ayr are again likely to make things for him and his team-mates.

He said: “We didn’t manage to score against them in either the original match or the replay so all credit.

“They deserved the replay and in it they scored early, defended brilliantly and probably deserved to go through.

“We didn’t under-estimate them at all and we know this season they have done well in the League Cup, beating Inverness, Hearts and St Mirren, while their form in the league has picked up a bit recently, They’ll be giving everything they have got to get through – but so will we.”