Paul Hanlon has been on a near four-year journey, one encompassing 100 matches in the green and white of Hibs only to find himself back where he started – facing Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
In a remarkable twist of fate, the Highland outfit provide tonight’s opposition as Hanlon turns out for the 101st time for Hibs, just as they did for his debut.
Easter Road is also once again the venue and given the current woes which have beset the Edinburgh outfit, Hanlon has his fingers crossed that he and his team-mates can turn back the clock and conjure up a repeat of the 3-0 victory they enjoyed that day.
There was little cause for celebration for the Scotland Under-21 skipper as he completed a ton of appearances for Hibs, new boss Pat Fenlon watching as his side lost for the fourth time in succession as they went down 3-1 to Dundee United. But now, very much a first-team regular rather than the 17-year-old unknown who took to the field for former manager Mixu Paatelainen’s first match in charge, Hanlon knows he shoulders as much responsibility as any of his team-mates in ensuring Hibs haul themselves away from the foot of the SPL.
The young defender admitted: “It’s not what I would have wanted for my 100th game. It was a massive disappointment to be beaten and be in the position we are in. The worry is that Dunfermline and ourselves become detached, that’s something we definitely don’t want to happen.
“It’s hard when you are down there, you look at the fixtures trying to work out where you can pick up points. But we do know that in this league everyone is capable of beating each other.
“We are confident in our own ability and of being able to turn things around. If we can put a run together, even four or five matches unbeaten it can start us climbing the table.
“We did it last year when we were under a bit of pressure and yet we managed to clock up five straight wins. If we can pick up a few wins over the next couple of weeks that will stop the pack slipping away from us.” Terry Butcher’s Caley will, of course, have other ideas, their 2-1 victory over Aberdeen at the weekend giving them a four-point cushion over Hibs and the Pars, one they’ll be intent on extending tonight.
Hanlon said: “It will be a difficult game but we need to take advantage of our home games. Our record at Easter Road hasn’t been very good, it’s something we need to address and if we can do that it will also help tremendously.”
Although he’ll be totally focused on tonight’s match, Hanlon admitted thoughts of January 12, 2008, will no doubt flash through his mind.
He said: “I hadn’t realised Saturday’s match was my 100th. I knew it was close but I’m obviously delighted to have played 100 games with Hibs.
“It’s strange that my first was against Inverness and now I’ll be playing against them in my 101st. I was just shy of my 18th birthday when I made my debut, a Scottish Cup tie. We’d been doing some team shaping the day before and from the way it was going some of the boys were telling me I’d be playing.
“Both David Murphy and Lewis Stevenson were struggling with injuries but even so I didn’t really believe them. It wasn’t until just before I left training that Alistair Stevenson [then head youth coach] told me I was in the team. I was delighted to get the chance but it was nerve-wracking before the game. However, the nerves disappeared with my first touch of the ball. We had guys like Guillaume Beuzelin and Rob Jones in the side which helped me through.
“Dean Shiels scored a hat-trick and we won 3-0, a great result and one which I’d be delighted if we could repeat tonight.”
Hanlon went on to make nine appearances in the remainder of that season, a regular place in the first team understandably hard to nail down given his age and lack of experience. Twelve more games followed the next season while the youngster also had a short spell on loan with St Johnstone.
However, over the past three seasons Hanlon has established himself not only with Hibs but the Scotland Under-21 squad, earning himself 17 caps while enjoying the responsibility of captaining Billy Stark’s side through their current European Championship qualifying campaign.
Now he is looked upon as a key figure, a standing which is underlined by the fact he’s the only Hibs player to have played every minute of all 22 games so far this season – doing likewise in five international matches. Aware he’s living the dream as a lifelong Hibs fan despite being a former pupil of Tynecastle High School, Hanlon said: “A lot of people have said to me it seems as if I have been around forever and looking back it does feel like a long time ago.
“I can’t say I set myself any goals back then. I knew I was a young lad with a lot of learn but first-team experience at that age was good for me.
“It was really just a case of trying to prove myself, of trying to get into the team and play every week and, to be honest, that’s still my aim. I just want to play every game trying to improve my performances.
“I’m really happy to have reached 100 games and delighted to have played every minute of every game so far this season. I’ve been lucky – touch wood – not to have picked up any injuries and hopefully I’ll continue to get my game every week and try to help the team get more points.”
If things are a bit low at the moment, Hanlon revealed he also has some happier memories he can look back on. He said: “Obviously making my debut and winning was a massive day for me but there are another couple of stand-outs.
“Going to Parkhead and winning when Danny Galbraith scored in the last minute was terrific but so, too, was winning at Tynecastle when we’d gone there with so many players out and everyone writing us off only for Derek Riordan to get the game’s only goal with a penalty.
“It’s tough going at the moment, but hopefully there will be a few more big wins coming up.”