Paul Hanlon had heard all the chat over the past couple of weeks, team-mates like Lewis Stevenson and John McGinn talking up his chances of finally earning a Scotland call-up.
But, admitted the Hibs defender, he didn’t even dare to start dreaming, feeling he didn’t have a chance of being named in interim national coach Malky Mackay’s squad for next week’s friendly against the Netherlands.
So it came as a total surprise when Hibs boss Neil Lennon walked into the dressing-room after training at the club’s East Mains base to break the good news to the former Scotland Under-21 skipper.
“Even when he said it I wasn’t too sure, to be honest,” confessed Hanlon, such was the shock. “But I’m delighted, surprised but excited.
“Most of the boys were there so they were congratulating me. It was great, I’m delighted. Honestly, I didn’t think I would have a chance. A lot of people, mainly team-mates, seemed to be talking about it and saying I probably had a chance, but it wasn’t something I thought about too much. It wasn’t as if I was going into games and thinking I needed to play well to get into the Scotland squad.
“Now that it’s happened I want to grab the opportunity with both hands.”
Hanlon revealed he wasn’t even aware Mackay had been among the crowd for last Tuesday’s derby against Hearts, the 27-year-old helping shut out the Gorgie strikeforce as Simon Murray’s early goal won the game, and following that up with another clean sheet as Hibs defeated Motherwell to claim joint fourth in the Premiership at the weekend.
He said: “I didn’t know he was at the match until the other day when John McGinn mentioned it. For me, it was a derby and I wasn’t worried about who was watching.”
Hanlon won 23 caps for Scotland’s Under-21 side to go with his ten appearances at Under-19 level but, as the years passed by, it was perhaps beginning to look as if a call-up for the full Scotland squad might elude him although the player agreed with Lennon that three years in the Championship possibly played a part in that.
He said: “I wouldn’t say I’d given up on it. It wasn’t something I strived to do too much purely because I have had so much going on at Hibs.
“We’ve been desperate to get promoted and getting to cup finals, so things like that have taken my concentration.
“Mainly the promotion factor, because being in the Championship for three years, the thinking was that we’ve just got to get this club back to where it should be. As I said, I felt that once we got back here if I was playing well week in, week out, then I’d have a much better chance of getting in the squad.”
Some may also see his call-up as vindication of his decision to stay at Easter Road when, having enjoyed that historic Scottish Cup triumph, he chose to sign a new three-year contract with Hibs and play a third season in the second tier rather than sever his ties with a club where he had made his first team debut at the age of just 17.
Hanlon, looking to help Hibs to a third consecutive win and shut-out when they take on Kilmarnock at Rugby Park tonight, said: “It wasn’t something I thought of at the time ‘stay here and I can get in the Scotland squad’. It was more ‘stay here, get Hibs promoted and then we can look from there’. I think playing in the Championship hampered my chances a wee bit, playing there for three years. I think I’ve played some good football over the last few years but I would agree there were other players playing at a much higher level than I was.
“This season it has been about proving I am good enough to be at this level and I kknew if I did that I would have a chance.
“But in terms of signing a new deal I was thinking about getting Hibs back to where they should be, challenging at the top end of the Premiership and that’s when people will start taking notice.”
Mackay, for one, appears to have done so and. if weekend newspaper reports were accurate so, too, has former Hibs boss Tony Mowbray, now in charge of English League One team Blackburn Rovers, who is said to have dispatched scouts to report on Hanlon’s performances.
“I came out of training on Sunday and there were a couple of messages on my phone,” he said. “We’re not allowed our phones in the building. I don’t know where that’s [Rovers] come form but it’s good to be playing well and to be in a winning team. Every player wants to get some recognition if you are doing well and there is no better recognition for a Scottish player than to be in the Scotland squad.”
Hanlon will be scouring the Dutch squad Dick Advocaat chooses for next week’s match at Pittodrie to see if there are any familiar names from his days with Scotland’s Under-21 squad. He recalled: “I played in two qualifying campaigns and we played Holland in one of the groups. We drew 0-0 at home against them and beat them 2-1 away with David Wotherspoon scoring the winner.
“Virgil van Dijk played for them, Jordy Clasie who was at Southampton, Luciano Narsingh was wide right and Nacer Barazite who, I think, was with Arsenal at the time. They had a lot of promising youngsters at that stage and it was quite a result for us to go away and win. Listen, no matter what level you play them at, they are going to be a good side. It’s going to be a tough ask for us. I’ve had decent international experience at Under-21 level and hopefully that puts me in good stead going into the national team.”