'Nobody has a divine right to play' - Hibs skipper fighting for his place
It’s a new experience for a beloved club servant who has played such a vital role for so long. Being asked to drop in and out of the starting XI is an entirely unfamiliar scenario for Paul Hanlon, Hibernian captain.
Like all good leaders, however, Hanlon understands the value of putting the team first. As “difficult” as he finds life on the fringes, desperately fighting for a starting spot, he was never about to make life awkward for new boss Nick Montgomery.
And now that he’s got a toehold back in the first team, earning the gaffer’s praise for his performance in Saturday’s battling 1-0 away win over Livingston? It’s fair to say that Hanlon is in no mood to surrender his place.
The 33-year-old, who hadn’t started a game since October’s brutalising 4-0 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox, confessed: “It’s obviously been difficult. I’ve been fortunate that over the past however many years I’ve pretty much been a mainstay in the team.
“I’ve had to do a bit of fighting. I’ve had to bide my time, come in and out, maybe come on for 20 minutes in a difficult situation, maybe a one-goal lead or the team is under the cosh. That’s been a learning experience for me, it’s not something I’ve been used to.
“Even in terms of how my weeks pan out, my diet and things like that, it changes when you’ve not got a big hit at the weekend. I’ve just tried to manage it as well as possible and hope I was ready whenever selected.
“Like against Livingston, I think I did well enough. Hopefully that’s enough to keep me in the team. If not, then it’s back to the drawing board, keep working, stay ready.
“Listen, nobody has any divine right to play. You need to be ready and take your chance when it comes. Hopefully I’ve taken mine.”
No disrespect to Rocky Bushiri, left warming the bench after his own midweek struggles at Celtic Park, but Hanlon certainly looked capable of hanging on to his place for a little while, at least. The fact that Montgomery singled the skipper out for praise suggests the manager agrees.
There were plenty of positives for everyone to take from Saturday, of course, with a fourth win in five games taking Hibs above their city rivals to sit fourth in the Scottish Premiership. Monty’s men are building confidence. In themselves, each other and the tactics being implemented by the new coaching team.
Hanlon said: “I think the run is down to a mixture of things, really. Sticking to our principles and trusting in what we’re doing. Obviously, it was tough conditions at Livingston but we still tried to do it as much as possible, playing out from the back. There were times when you just had to clear the ball and do the right thing.
“Our decision making was good, we were picking and choosing when to go into the attacking areas. But the gaffer has a style of football that we all want to play. It’s just about trusting it and all staying on the same page.
“We obviously had a bump against Celtic, which could have dented the confidence, but you didn’t see any signs of that against Livingston. It’s just about sticking together and sticking to what we’re all trying to do.
“I was one of the boys celebrating at full-time! It’s a hard place to go, it’s really difficult to get points there. Livingston put a lot of balls in the box, they’ve got some big lads in the team as well, so we knew we had to defend well.
“A clean sheet is just as good as a goal for me. So that full-time whistle was great.
“Obviously we’re trying to play an exciting brand of football, getting the ball into the front four we’ve got, they’re exciting to watch. Teams won’t always let you do that.
“When it’s not working as well, you need to trust the defence and the midfield to do their job defensively. You saw the spirit and the feelgood factor going into the last ten minutes, when we were getting the ball clear, everyone was cheering and encouraging each other.”
Being above Hearts matters, of course. Even allowing for the game in hand. But Hanlon has been around long enough to know that, at this hectic stage of a long season, such ‘achievements’ can be fleeting. He’ll be much happier talking about it if they’re still ahead of their near neighbours come the winter break.
He explained: “We’re kind of looking towards the break now and putting ourselves in as good a position as we can going into that. This will definitely help.
“Aye, it’s obviously a feelgood for the club and for the fans. But we’ll probably reassess it more when we hit that break, see how we are. It can all change again this week, you know how tight this league is, it can change on a weekly basis.”