“Busquets” is the shout from Dylan McGeouch as he spots team-mate Paul Hanlon talking to the Evening News at Hibs’ East Mains training ground.
The midfielder, of course, is making jovial reference to the fact the seasoned centre-half stepped into the anchorman role made famous by the Barcelona superstar for Saturday’s hard fought 1-1 draw with Falkirk.
It was the second time this season Hanlon has played as a holding midfielder after he did so for the first hour of the Petrofac Training Cup thrashing at the hands of Rangers in July.
The 25-year-old acquitted himself well against the Bairns in a seemingly unorthodox position, although he insists the poise and composure he showed in the middle of the park shouldn’t have come as a great surprise to the likes of McGeouch given that he arrived at Hibs a decade ago after excelling as a marauding midfielder for Tynecastle High School and Hutchison Vale Boys’ Club.
“As a boy, that’s where I played, central midfield,” he said. “I was there all the way until I was 14 or 15. I used to play on the left side of a three in midfield and got forward quite a lot. It was just attacking all the time, getting into the box and shooting all the time. I really enjoyed it. But pretty much as soon as I came to Hibs, I moved from midfield to defence.
“I made the switch under [former youth coach] Alistair Stevenson. He was taking us in the youth teams and it was one of my first games for Hibs, in the under-15s. He pulled me aside and said: ‘I can see you being a good centre-half’. I was really surprised – I wasn’t expecting that.
“I’d never thought about playing at the back before. At the start, I said to my dad, ‘get me out of here’. When they first moved me back, I didn’t know what I was doing. Thankfully I stuck with it and got used to it and started to enjoy it. I’ve got a lot to thank Alistair for, because I probably wouldn’t have made the Hibs first team if I’d stayed in midfield. I ended up getting call-ups to the Scotland Under-19s and 21s as a defender, so it’s worked out well.”
Hanlon deputised in the engine room due to fitness issues afflicting Marvin Bartley, McGeouch and Liam Henderson. Although he enjoyed reliving his youth in a more advanced position, the dismissal of John McGinn just before the break ensured a hard second-half shift for the makeshift midfielder.
“I enjoyed playing midfield but my legs are feeling it a bit now,” he said. “It’s a bit harder on the legs than what I’m used to. It’s hard trying to get on the ball, be in different positions and not being able to relax at any point in the game. That’s the hardest thing.
“I don’t know if it’s a one-off, you’d have to ask the manager. It wasn’t something we worked on during the week in training and we hadn’t really spoken about it before. I played there against Rangers in the Petrofac Cup, for the first 60 minutes, then moved back.
“But, other than that, he (Alan Stubbs) just said I could go in there to start off with and, if he wanted to change it, he had the options to do that.
“I started off in Marvin’s position, sitting in the centre of a three. But when John got sent off, it was more of a 4-4-1, with me right in the middle. I didn’t really find myself dropping back into defensive positions – I was comfortable to hold my position in midfield.
“The big difference I found was when the ball transfers across the pitch. At centre-half, you just have to shuffle five or ten yards, whereas in midfield you’ve got 20-yard runs either way. I enjoyed the attacking side of it, playing the ball into the strikers and then bursting forward, especially in the first half. It was like being 14 again.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I tired a bit in the second half. Obviously going down to ten men made it more difficult, as well, with all the running about. It’s always good to be able to play in different positions. If the manager needs me there, I’m more than happy to do it.”
Hanlon had plenty experience of flexibility in his early years as a footballer. Although now an established centre-back, he was nurtured into the first-team environment as a left-back under former manager Mixu Paatelainen some eight years ago. “I came into the team as a left-back, but I think that was more to do with the physicality aspect of it,” he said. “It’s not easy to be a centre-half in the first team at 17. Through under-15s, 17s and 19s, I was switching between left-back and centre-half, so I could play both positions easily enough.”
While the shedding of two Championship points would usually be greeted with frustration by Hibs, they were more than content to have ended up with a draw against Falkirk on Saturday after playing more than half the game with ten men and falling behind with just six minutes to play. The fact Rangers were held 2-2 at home to Morton meant the salvaging of a point with a stoppage-time equaliser from Martin Boyle ensured Hibs felt as if they had won the match.
“It was a good point as it continued our unbeaten run and kept up the confidence and high spirits in the squad,” said Hanlon. “It was massive for us to come back the way we did against Falkirk. There is a real belief and confidence about this team and we never feel like we are beaten. We go into every game only thinking about winning and that is just the belief that the manager and his staff have brought in.”
Hibs trailed Rangers by 11 points prior to the 1-0 win at Falkirk on October 20, but now they are just three behind the leaders, who have shown signs of being unnerved by the Easter Road’s widely unforeseen title charge.
Hanlon admits his team are relishing the pursuit of the Ibrox side.
“It’s great to be involved in,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure in every game. I’m sure most of the players in the squad prefer it that way. You want to be under pressure. Rangers will be looking over their shoulders, but that’s what a title race is about. A few weeks ago, before we beat them, people thought the title race was over. If we had been beaten in that game [at the start of November] it would have been very hard. It wouldn’t be over because we would have been fighting all the way but it would have made it a lot more difficult to catch them. Now it’s right on. They’ve had a few sticky results, so it’s about being there to capitalise.”