Paul Hanlon knows tougher tests lie ahead for Hibs but insisted they have given themselves a great platform to emulate the success of last season in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Hibs’ start to the new season has been rather eclipsed by that of rivals Hearts, but after eight games Neil Lennon’s players sit just two points behind the Gorgie outfit, second in the Premiership table and they are, in fact, are better off than they were at the same stage a year ago.
A storming second half to their campaign, in which they lost just one of their final 14 games, put Hibs in contention for the runners-up spot behind Celtic until the penultimate match, and while Lennon has admitted it will be difficult to emulate that achievement, his new-look side have gathered four points more than this time last season.
A stuttering start to the season by champions Celtic allied to a resurgent Rangers, a much-improved Hearts, the promise being shown by Hibs, Livingston’s surprise impact on their return to the top flight and the anticipated challenges of Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, have provoked talk of a genuine title race for the first time in years.
Hibs are very much part of that debate, leading Hanlon to say: “I think we have had good starts before, but not in terms of a title race. We had a good start under Yogi [John Hughes] and with Pat Fenlon we were top in November, but never spoken of as being in that race.
“It’s probably getting spoken more of now because Celtic and Rangers have had more stuttering starts than we have had, but it’s too early to talk of what might happen.
“I think you have to be well over halfway through the fixtures to decide what might happen.
“Looking back on last year you would probably say the disappointing bit was the first part when we didn’t get beaten in too many games but we had too many draws.
“If we can perform even better in the first half of the season – and who knows if the manager will want to strengthen in January as he did last season – hopefully we can push on.”
After four successive wins against Kilmarnock, Dundee, St Mirren and Hamilton, Hibs will travel to take on Celtic and Hearts following the international break but Hanlon reckons the players brought in during the summer to replace the likes of John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan are now beginning to settle, reflected in recent displays culminating in that 6-0 hammering of Hamilton.
He said: “It took us a while to get going in terms of performance, but the last few games have been great and we’ve started keeping clean sheets.
“The squad changed a lot in the summer, we came back to tough European games so it takes time. But the boys have settled in and you can see how well the club have recruited.
“We haven’t played any of the so-called bigger teams and it’s early days so we have to keep our performance levels high and we where that takes us. We have a tough two games coming up and a really tough December.
“We can only play who is in front of us and we’ve managed to take a good number of points so far, but Parkhead and Tynecastle will probably be a real measure of what kind of level we are at. We don’t have a massive squad but there’s depth with a lot of players who can play in different positions, a lot of cover and we’re ready for the challenge.”
Nine spectacular goals from midfielder Stevie Mallan, one of eight summer signings, have helped the Hibs support get over the departures of McGinn, McGeouch and Allan while fellow newcomers such as Daryl Horgan, Mark Milligan and Emerson Hyndman have also created a greater sense of optimism in the stands.
Hanlon said: “If you lose the likes of John McGinn it’s going to take time to adjust. He was a massive player for us and he’s shown since he’s left how good he is.
“But we’ve recruited well and the boys who were here already here have stepped up, shared around the responsibility and we have kicked on as a team and shown we can play without him.”
Hanlon has been forced to watch Hibs’ last couple of matches from the sidelines because of a leg injury but, revealed the defender, it has allowed him to appreciate the full the skills of Mallan.
“He’s so accurate and the way he strikes the ball is incredible,” said the 28-year-old. “His second goal against Hamilton didn’t fly into the net but it’s out of the keeper’s reach. In terms of long-range shooting, I can’t remember seeing anyone like him in Scotland. He’s deadly from 25 yards. The gaffer touched on it after the game when he said you’re disappointed if Stevie doesn’t hit the target.
“Goals from midfield can make a difference in any team. If you can get midfielders, defenders – Dave Gray has done well in terms of scoring – it can help the team massively and take the pressure off strikers.”
Mallan has already scored as many goals this season as McGinn, McGeouch and Allan did last year but, insisted Hanlon, the quality of his delivery is just as important in creating opportunities for others to score.
He said: “The quality is great, but it’s the consistency. It’s always on the money and we’ve scored a few goals from set-pieces already.”
“Hopefully he’s the next one who progresses into the full Scotland set-up.”
McGinn scored twice at Parkhead as Hibs drew 2-2 with Celtic last season, Hanlon admitting that while the trip to the east end of Glasgow a week on Saturday provides a formidable challenge, it’s the sort of stage upon which Mallan can shine.
He said: “I think that’s probably the next test for him. He’s done well for us but that’s where you are judged, against the top teams in the league so I don’t see any reason why not.
“He is a confident boy and when he gets into those shooting positions he’s deadly.
“Celtic is a great place to go and play football, these are the games you want to be involved in, 60,000 sell-out crowds, a great pitch and a really tough game. For me, that’s the fixture I look for, when it’s going to be, an exciting, enjoyable game.
“Celtic are on similar points to us so we have to look to take something from the game. We are a big club as well, the demands from our fans every week is that we play well, perform and win.
“The pressure is there from being at a club like this so we will quietly keep going and see where it takes us.”
Hanlon’s first task, though, will be getting back into Lennon’s side with 19-year-old Ryan Porteous impressing in both his absence and that of Darren McGregor.
“Am I surprised?” he asked. “Probably, given his age but not in terms of his ability. He’s a good bit ahead of where I was at his age in terms of playing centre-half. He’s a natural leader and if he keeps progressing I see no reason why, in the longer-term, he won’t be playing for Scotland.”