So often in football it takes just one lucky break to launch a career, a fact of which Paul Hanlon is acutely aware of as he prepares, ten years on since making his debut for Hibs, for a testimonial match against Blackburn Rovers.
Faced with an immediate dilemma after becoming Hibs boss – both David Murphy and Lewis Stevenson ruled out through injury – Mixu Paatelainen turned to youth coach Alistair Stevenson in search of a solution to fill that vacant left-back berth for his first match, a Scottish Cup tie against Inverness Caley.
Stevenson had no hesitation in putting Hanlon’s name forward and so, just eight days short of his 18th birthday, the defender was handed a shock debut but one to remember as Hibs ran out 3-0 winners thanks to a Dean Shiels’ hat-trick.
Hanlon is the first to admit his memory isn’t the greatest but now, with 345 games in the green-and-white behind him, it’s little surprise he can recall that day and the debt he owes both Paatelainen and Stevenson.
He said: “It was a dream come true, I was a Hibs fan just desperate to get into the squad. Mixu threw me in at the deep end, but I’m grateful to him for putting me in that day. It would have been really easy for him to go with a more experienced team, especially as it was his first game in charge.
“Alistair was great to me through the youth teams and towards reserve football and he told Mixu I was good enough to play at that level. Mixu took his word for it so I’ll always be grateful to him as well.”
Hanlon’s unexpected promotion saw him miss out on a league and cup double with the Easter Road outfit’s Under-19 side, one which included the likes of David Wotherspoon, Callum Booth and Sean Welsh, but, he insisted, it was a small price to pay.
He said: “I never felt like I was missing out because when I left school my only aim was to play for Hibs, that was all that mattered. The other boys went on to have a great season winning the double, as our youth team did again this year, and I went to Hampden to watch them lift the cup. But I would never have swapped that for a place in the first team.”
Initially a left-back, Hanlon has well and truly established himself in central defence and having experienced the ups and downs of life at Easter Road, he believes he’s just enjoyed his best season with the club, their return to the Premiership after a three-year absence proving to be a huge success with a place in the Europa League secured even if they did miss out on second place in the table on the penultimate day.
Coming on the back of that historic Scottish Cup triumph and the Championship title, Hanlon believes Neil Lennon’s players have raised the bar but insisted he and his team-mates are determined to match their fans’ expectations.
The 28-year-old said: “I’d like to think I’m coming off my best season for Hibs. It was really enjoyable for everyone involved, the fans came back in their numbers and seemed to be enjoying the football we were playing every week.
“I was happy with my performances and there was a real feelgood factor around the club. The last couple of years have been what I expected being a Hibs player, to be competing for silverware and being in a relatively successful team.
“They have been the best and you appreciate them even more when you have been through the tougher times like relegation and finishing towards the bottom of the table. That’s never easy, especially at a club like Hibs where the expectations are high.
“Edinburgh is a big city and there are a lot of people wanting you to do well – and more than happy to tell you that you are not very good when you are not doing well.
“I’ve been through it all along with Lewis, we’ve seen the highs and lows but now we have just got to do our best and keep our standards as high as they were last season.”
The visit of Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn, newly promoted to the English Championship, a week on Sunday will, admitted Hanlon, rekindle memories of his early years and also those of supporters as they recall the “golden generation” of Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Steven Whittaker, Garry O’Connor, Derek Riordan and so on who were pulling on the green-and-white when the Englishman was in charge at Easter Road.
Hanlon said: “I was only there six months before he left but I trained with them a few times. It was great and the atmosphere around the club when he was here was amazing. The fans were loving the football they were seeing and to come in as a Hibs fan at the age of 16 and be around all those players was brilliant.
“That was the golden generation, they were the ones I loved going to see on a Saturday. I’ve been lucky enough to play with a few of them since. Those were great times to be a Hibs fan, there’s no doubt about that, and I’m sure Tony will get a good reception when he comes back.”