Paul Hanlon: Hibs have found the winning mix

Paul Hanlon has helped marshall his defence to 'concede just 23 goals this term
Paul Hanlon has helped marshall his defence to 'concede just 23 goals this term
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This time last year life was a struggle for Paul Hanlon, the defender well aware that one mistake, one momentary lapse in concentration was likely to prove fatal.

The Easter Road star and his team-mates were living on a knife edge, struggling to score goals and inevitably punished week after week as they hurtled towards relegation from the Premiership.

The 51 goals lost over the course of the 38 league games was nothing to boast about but, surprisingly, it proved to be the best defensive record of any of the bottom six clubs. However, what was the undoing of Hibs was the fact they scored just 31 times, the fewest of all 12 top-flight clubs, and notching up just one clean sheet in their final 19 matches.

Today the contrast couldn’t be any more stark. In 25 matches Hibs have scored 50 times, a record bettered only by Championship leaders Hearts, and while Hanlon and Co will believe their goals against column of 23 could have been improved, again only their Edinburgh rivals can claim to have conceded fewer.

It may have taken a little time, but the balance between scoring and not conceding appears to have been struck, Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings both into double figures up front while an astonishing 19 players have found the back of the net.

At the other end four clean sheets have been racked up in the last five league fixtures leading 24-year-old Hanlon to say: “It’s a good combination to have.

I am up against them in training and there’s always one of them who is unplayable on their day

Paul Hanlon

“First and foremost I go out into every game looking for a clean sheet because we know we have players who can win us the game. Midfielders can score goals and the strikers have plenty goals between them so we know that if we can do our job at the back then it gives us a chance.

“Jason is a young talent who is trying to mature in the game and has a great future. He can only learn from the likes of Dom and Franck Dja Djedje who have been around different clubs and countries and who have good experience.

“I am up against them in training and there’s always one of them who is unplayable on their day.”

As a consquence Hanlon admits he feels more relaxed going into games now, saying: “I suppose it does put more pressure on you if you are going out there thinking ‘we’re going to struggle to score today so I’d better play well’.

“But this year it’s completely different. We believe our strikers will do their job and we just have to keep it tight at the back. Of recent times that’s been the case.”

After overcoming a stuttering start to the season as Stubbs set about rebuilding a squad and restoring a shattered confidence, Hibs have suffered defeat just once in their last 19 league games and also have an outstanding opportunity to progress to the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup when they face League Two Berwick Rangers next weekend.

It’s a record which has resulted in a battle with Rangers for second place, the two clubs currently playing a game of leapfrog but, Hanlon admitted, one which also has left everyone at Easter Road thinking what might have been had they been able to hit the ground running at the start of the season.

Could Hibs have been title contenders? “Yeah,” replied Hanlon, “Or at least clear in second. But you can’t look back on it too much. It has happened now and we are making up for it by going on this good run heading into the business end of the season.

“It’s a great run of form and hopefully we keep it going [against Alloa Athletic] today.

“Second place is what we want now, but the ball is in Rangers court. They have the games in hand and we have to wait to see what happens in those games. They have to play Hearts, so we will see. But at the end of the day we have to keep winning as well and that’s what we aim to do.

“We go into every game expecting to win and are confident we can win but, really, we are looking no further than Alloa, it’s about getting the three points there.

“We don’t go into games just thinking about keeping our unbeaten run going and settling for a draw, it’s all about winning games and that’s what we are looking to do today.

“It’s a tough place to go as we found out earlier in the season, but it’s all about going there and doing a professional job.”