PAUL Hanlon admits there were times last season when he forgot what it felt like to be a winner. But now he has rediscovered the habit, the Hibs defender is determined to hang on to it.
First goals of the season by Scotland Under-21 skipper Paul Hanlon and striker Eoin Doyle against St Johnstone made it back-to-back SPL wins for the Easter Road side following victory over St Mirren – a feat they didn’t achieve until the penultimate match of last season. Tonight’s Scottish Communities League Cup second-round tie against Queen of the South offers Pat Fenlon’s outfit the opportunity to makes it three in a row, which may not sound much in the greater scheme of things but, as Hanlon pointed out, it’s very much a matter of one step at a time as the Edinburgh club seek to regain their standing within the top flight.
He said: “Counting the derby, it’s now three games unbeaten with back-to-back wins, a run we want to keep going. It’s a great feeling once you get a bit of momentum going and we want to keep putting in the performances for the fans so they come back in even greater numbers.
“I remember saying last season I hoped what had happened would make us all stronger going forward. Just winning these two games reminds you how good the winning feeling is. You just want more and more.”
Hibs were far from good in the opening 45 minutes against St Johnstone, who could count themselves unlucky to be trailing to Hanlon’s headed goal on the stroke of half-time. But, he revealed, there’s an inner strength in Fenlon’s squad which almost made the manager’s team talk during the interval redundant.
He said: “There were a few words at half-time because we were not happy with the way we had played. I think it shows how far we have come because in the past people would probably have just accepted it.
“But we are all standing up for each other, making our points and we got the reaction second-half. There wasn’t a barney, no-one having a go at anyone else, just a disappointment at the way we had played.
“It seems everyone is really determined to put things right. When we are performing badly we need to get it right straight away as we did with a much-improved second-half display.”
Hanlon conceded, though, that his goal had come at a vital time, stunning Saints and providing a platform for Doyle to take the game beyond them with a second goal six minutes after the break.
“It was a cracking time to score,” he said. “I just reached over their defender to get to the ball and it came off my face and shoulder. It went down and back up, which makes it difficult for the goalkeeper, and I was just delighted to see it go in despite Callum Davidson’s effort to clear it off the line.
“Perhaps last year it wouldn’t have been 0-0 at that point given the way we had played. St Johnstone had been pressing us high up the park, their strikers were working hard to close us down and we were putting too many long balls up to Leigh Griffiths and Eoin that sometimes they never really had a chance of winning, although they worked tirelessly for us.
“As defenders we face Leigh and Eoin every day in training and all I can say is I’m glad we don’t have to do so on matchdays. They never give defenders a minute’s peace. Leigh has been getting a lot of headlines recently, but Eoin’s workrate has been brilliant and we were delighted to see him get a goal.”
Almost as pleasing as the win and his own goal was the fact that, for the first time this season, Fenlon’s side kept a clean sheet, aided in part by two glaring misses by Saints striker Gregory Tade, but largely through the efforts of Hanlon himself and skipper James McPake in the centre of defence.
Hanlon, who started the campaign at left-back, admitted he is relishing the opportunity to renew what looked a highly promising partnership with McPake during the second half of last season, while revealing both goalkeeper Ben Williams and former Hearts star Alan Maybury, who has taken over at left back, are playing important roles not only for the team in general but in his own development.
He said: “Last year James came in and was great for me, teaching me certain things I need to learn. On my other side, Alan has great experience and he talks constantly to me throughout games as does Ben behind me. There’s so much I can learn from them.
“Scoring was a bonus. First and foremost as a defender you want to keep a clean sheet. We’d actually spoken the day before the game telling each other we were due one and so we were delighted to do so.”
The fact it came at Easter Road where Hibs won only two league matches last season wasn’t lost on Hanlon. He said: “We had a terrible record here last year. It seemed as if we couldn’t buy a win at times, so we are delighted to have put on two half-decent performances [against Hearts and St Johnstone] in front of our own supporters. Now it is a case of keeping it going and looking to improve with each match.”
Hibs’ promising start to the season will be given its stiffest examination when they head for Celtic Park on Saturday for a “top of the table” clash.
But that, Hanlon insisted, has been pushed aside as he and his team-mates concentrate on tonight’s showdown with Second Division Queen of the South.
Agreeing it’s a match which will throw up its own difficulties, Hanlon said: “There is a lot of pressure on us and not a lot on them. It’s up to us to be professional and put in a performance. If we play to our best I am sure we can win.
“It will be something new to some of the new arrivals but I am sure over their careers they will have come across similar scenarios many times. Every one of the boys the gaffer has brought in will work hard no matter what the conditions or who we are playing. We will all be determined to put on a display for the fans who will make the long journey down there.”