Hibs manager Neil Lennon will be spoilt for choice in the centre-back department when Paul Hanlon returns to contention, according to Liam Fontaine.
The Easter Road side started with a full international pairing of Efe Ambrose and Mark Milligan in central defence against St Johnstone last weekend, with Darren McGregor, a mainstay of the past three years, and burgeoning Scotland Under-21 internationalist Ryan Porteous, on the bench. Hanlon, the deputy captain and arguably the club’s most influential centre-back, has missed the last five matches with a leg injury sustained in the Betfred Cup quarter-final defeat by Aberdeen in September. However, he has a chance of returning to the side when Hibs face the Dons at Pittodrie tomorrow night. Former Hibs defender Fontaine, who left to join Ross County in January, is in no doubt about the quality of options at Lennon’s disposal.
“It’s common knowledge that Hibs have a very strong group of centre-backs,” the 2016 Scottish Cup-winner told the Evening News. “I know Ryan Porteous well and he is potentially one of Scotland’s next big centre-backs if he keeps progressing the way he has been. Paul’s obviously the long-time Hibee and Big Daz is a Hibee. Efe’s class speaks for itself, he just churns out consistent performances. Then there’s Mark Milligan, who’s an Australian international. It’ll be an absolute headache for the manager to pick from that lot depending on what shape he wants to go with. It’s a real bonus for the club to have that many quality centre-backs in their arsenal.”
Ambrose has been the only constant in the Hibs defence this season, with Hanlon and McGregor afflicted by injuries, Milligan, predominantly a central midfielder, and 19-year-old Porteous, having dropped out of the starting line-up for the past three matches after a strong start to the season.
“You’ve got different styles of centre-backs in there as well,” said Fontaine. “Big Daz is just a brick wall. Paul’s a very cultured defender. Porteous has got a lot of different attributes – he can play with the ball and he’s also got the aggressive side. For him to have all of that at his age is great. Efe and Mark’s credentials speak for themselves. They’re both internationalists who have played at a good level. It’s a fantastic thing for them to have.”
Hanlon is likely to be one of the first names on the team sheet when he is fit and Fontaine believes it will make the team more secure to have their defensive linchpin on the pitch.
“It will be a big boost if they can get Paul back,” said the Englishman. “I’m sure when he’s back in the team it’ll be like he’s never been away. I’ve been talking a lot recently about the importance of consistency in any interviews I do and Paul, for me, has been one of the most consistent game-to-game performers throughout his time at Hibs. He’s a calming influence on the team and he very rarely dips below a certain standard. That’s testament to the professional that he is on and off the pitch.”
Meanwhile, Hibs teenagers Jamie Gullan and Josh Campbell have signed contract extensions until 2022.