Darren McGregor believes Gordon Strachan should be paying close attention to Paul Hanlon, claiming his team-mate is the best Scottish centre half in the game – and will only get better with age.
Hanlon clocked up his 300th match for the Easter Road club as he faced Morton at the weekend, a feat McGregor hailed as “amazing” given he’s only 26-year-old and predicted the former Scotland Under-21 skipper can go on for another decade.
Hanlon was eight days short of his 18th birthday when new boss Mixu Paatelainen plucked him from the Hibs youth team which went on to win a memorable league and cup double that season for his first game in charge, a Scottish Cup tie against Inverness Caley in January 2008, a match won with a hat-trick from Dean Shiels.
In the intervening years managers have come and gone at Easter Road, but Hanlon’s name has been one of the first on the teamsheet and an ever-present under current boss Neil Lennon.
And, argued McGregor, it’s easy to see why. He said: “Paul mentioned it on the bus on the way through to Cappielow. It’s amazing he’s played so many games at his age. He still has at least another ten years in him and I am sure there will be many more appearances for him.
“I’m not bigging him up just because I play with him, but you look at Paul every week and I can’t pin-point another Scottish centre-half who is better than Paul. He’s in his prime at the moment, but he’s maturing and he’d probably say himself he is getting better as he gets older and more experienced. He has the potential to get better and become an even more accomplished centre-half.
“Training with him every day and playing alongside him, he’s up there with any centre-half I have played with. He’s a great defender but unusually for a centre-half we’s a great football player as well. He’s got good awareness, he’s composed and calm and a great lad to boot, so as far as I am concerned he ticks all the boxes.”
As if to underline McGregor’s assertion as to Hanlon’s composure is the fact that he’s only been shown the red card once in his career, not for a badly-timed or reckless challenge but for handball six years ago.
McGregor accepted the fact Hanlon is playing his third season in the Championship may be hindering his claim for full international recognition but pointed out that Hibs faced plenty of Premiership sides last season as they reached the final of the League Cup before going on to that historic Scottish Cup triumph, beating Aberdeen, Dundee United (twice), St Johnstone, Hearts and Caley along the way.
He said: “I can see why people will consider that but when we’ve played Premiership sides Paul has dealt with them. He’s a good, hard-working professional player and he’s probably not bothered as he’s a level-headed guy. But I am sure if he keeps putting in the performances he has done this season and last then the national team and perhaps others will come calling.”
Others did have their chance to “come calling” during the summer as Hanlon’s previous contract expired, with Aberdeen one of those credited with an interest, only for the lifelong Hibs fan to sign a new three-year deal which, barring injury and suspension, will see him approach the 400 appearance mark by its conclusion.
McGregor, though, can see Hanlon hanging around beyond then, joining Hibs’ longest-serving player Lewis Stevenson, who has now played 339 times for the club, in giving the Easter Road outfit remarkable service.
He said: “In this day and age it’s very rare for guys like Paul and Lewis to stay at one club. Money drives football nowadays and people will go somewhere else for a few hundred pounds more, but Paul is really settled and happy here and I can see him finishing his career with Hibs.
Might the fact Hanlon was part of the Hibs squad which under Terry Butcher suffered that humiliating relegation have been a factor in him committing a further three years of his career to the club? “I couldn’t speak for him but maybe he has that feeling he wants to help take us back up. We’re lucky to have him, He loves the club, he’s been here long enough to call it family, it means a lot to him as it does us all.”
Hanlon, unfortunately, was unable to mark his milestone with a victory, Neil Lennon’s side held to a draw in Greenock, a stunning free-kick from substitute Jason Cummings salvaging a point after former Hearts striker Gary Oliver had put Morton ahead.
Despite that disappointment, Hibs remain top of the Championship table on goal difference from Dundee United, although McGregor admitted it was a chance lost to open up a points differential, Ray McKinnon’s side having also been forced to settle for a draw earlier in the day as he returned to his old club Raith Rovers.
And, as plain speaking as ever, 31-year-old McGregor conceded he and his team-mates have been poor in their last couple of games.
He said: “We’re very self-critical. We’ve started really slowly. The gaffer has been asking us why that should be, but we can’t put a finger on it. Coming away with a draw was, on reflection, probably a fair result but while Morton are a decent outfit – and no disrespect to them – with the players we have we should be winning these games.
“It was always going to be difficult, they haven’t been beaten at home since March and it’s a tight pitch. We probably didn’t deal with is as well as we could have in the first half, but no excuses, we should have won it and we were disappointed not to.”
McGregor described Cummings’ equaliser as “a piece of magic”, but admitted he was still trying to get his head around Oliver’s opener, describing it as “a sucker punch” as Hibs began to dominate the match. Hibs goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw got his hand to Ross Forbes’ dipping shot to push it onto the cross bar only for the ball to fall for Jamie McDonagh who also saw his effort come off the bar before dropping at the feet of Oliver.
He said: “For the ball to hit the bar twice in quick succession and fall to their player both times is a bit unusual, it was a kick in the teeth.”
Oliver’s strike robbed Hibs of a tenth shut-out in the league this season, but the nine conceded in 17 games means they still boast the tightest defence in Britain.
McGregor said: “People keep telling us that but we don’t go into games thinking about it. We try to be organised, to do our job and I think we have done that quite well over the past couple of months. We pride ourselves on keeping clean sheets – if we do that we have a good chance of winning games.
“Unfortunately it didn’t pan out that way. It was a good opportunity to go clear at the top, but we didn’t take it so we are disappointed and angry.”