It will be a case of better late than never tomorrow for Hibs defender Paul Hanlon as he finally clocks up his 200th first-team game.
The 24-year-old has been eyeing that particular milestone for the past six months, left tantalisingly close but prevented from making it by injury. A cartilage problem which required surgery ruled him out of the final ten games of last season and he was forced to sit out four more after a bruised bone – in the same knee but totally unrelated to the original injury – having played in the initial two games of this campaign.
And, naturally, the former Scotland Under-21 skipper would like to celebrate the landmark with a victory at Queen of the South’s Palmerston Park, the scene of a League Cup shock on Hibs’ last visit to Dumfries when the Doonhamers, then top of League One, ran out 2-0 winners against their Premiership visitors.
Only 24 hours earlier Hibs boss Pat Fenlon had confidently claimed his side could go “all the way” in the competition, possibly based on the fact the Capital side had bounced back from a 3-0 thrashing at Tannadice on the opening day of the season to draw with Hearts and then beat both St Mirren and St Johnstone.
But first-half goals from Nicky Clark and Gavin Reilly made him eat his words while many of those who had made the long journey from Edinburgh were left questioning the little Irishman’s team selection.
Sean O’Hanlon, Callum Booth and Pa Kujabi were, effectively, given one last chance while veteran Finnish internationalist Shefki Kuqi was handed his first start of the season, the striker having enjoyed a total of just nine minutes of action as a substitute prior to that Tuesday night.
Both Booth and Kujabi were hooked at half-time and by the Saturday Booth was playing for Livingston, sent out on a season-long loan which was extended by another year at Raith Rovers. O’Hanlon and Kujabi never pulled on a Hibs shirt again while Kuqi turned out to be only a bit-part player.
“It was a bit strange,” admitted Hanlon who will probably be the only survivor from that night to take to the field tomorrow even though Booth has now returned to Easter Road. “I can’t answer for the manager’s decision, that was the team he picked and it did not work out on the night. We dropped our standards and were punished. Tomorrow is a different competition, it’s three points at stake so we’ll be looking for a good performance and result.
“It’s a bit surprising to think I might be the only one who played last time down there but in the past couple of years we seem to have gone in to a number of games where there’s been very few survivors from the previous match against those opponents.
“Queen of the South were good that night, they still have a number of the guys who played that night so we have to be focused and ready. The manager has talked about consistency through the whole season, there’s no point winning one and then dropping points in the next two. If it means going there, winning ugly and coming back up the road with the three points then we’ll take that.
“We need to start putting results together and start climbing up the table. It’s the start of a tough run for us, three games away from home in little more than a week but no-one’s talking about Ross County on Tuesday night or Rangers in the match after that. The focus is on tomorrow and hopefully afterwards we can start looking forward to the trip to Dingwall full of confidence.”
Hanlon admitted Hibs’ start to the season has probably reflected his own experience, something of a stop-start affair. He said: “It’s been frustrating. I aggravated my knee in the Challenge Cup tie at Ibrox but managed to play against Livingston in the first league game. Probably in hindsight I shouldn’t have played the next weekend.
“It led to me taking a little longer to recover but I am fine now and the manager showed a lot of faith in me by putting me straight back in for the Cowdenbeath game.”
It proved to be something of a rollercoaster with Jordon Forster heading Hibs into a first half lead only for the Blue Brazil to strike twice in quick succession after the break with Hanlon admitting he was at fault for the second as his attempted headed clearance presented Jon Robertson with the simplest of tap-ins. His agony, though, turned to ecstacy as new boy Dominique Malonga fired home a penalty to haul Hibs level before teenager Jason Cummings struck with virtually the last kick of the ball to clinch what had looked an unlikely victory.
It was the second home game in succession Hibs had staged a stirring fightback, three goals in the last 12 minutes earning Alan Stubbs’ players a 3-2 League Cup win over Dumbarton.
But as exciting as those finishes might have been, Hanlon insisted he’d rather not have all that drama, revealing that clocking up clean sheets – something he and his team-mates have singularly failed to do so far – was priority.
He said: “It’s great to see we have that resilience, that we are not going to give up. The pressure is on us, we are expected to win every game and when you go behind it is easy to crumble.
“Such fightbacks may be great and it’s great to think we have that in our locker, but it’s something we’d rather do without. We need to tighten up at the back and to stop conceding goals. If we can do that then with the attacking players we have, I feel we can cause teams all sorts of trouble.”
As for his own personal landmark, Hanlon admitted he’s hoping another comes along in the course of the next fortnight – his 200th appearance for Hibs, three of his first-team matches so far having come when he spent a short spell on loan at St Johnstone early in his career.
He said: “Just before I went out injured last season I knew I was getting close and was starting to work out when it would be. I’d been lucky up to then that I’d never had any real injury problems. It seems as if I have been struggling to get there, but hopefully I’ll get three more to make it 200 in a Hibs shirt.”