Paul Hanlon: Winning ugly crucial in Hibs’ title bid

Paul Hanlon is congratulated by Jason Cummings and captain David Gray after scoring against Dumbarton
Paul Hanlon is congratulated by Jason Cummings and captain David Gray after scoring against Dumbarton
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Paul Hanlon accepts few Hibs fans would have left Easter Road enamoured by the performance they had just witnessed against Dumbarton but Neil Lennon would happily swap style for three points in any game.

Hanlon’s third goal of the season and a second-half strike from Brian Graham were enough to see off Dumbarton – a side which has caused the Capital outfit more than a 
little grief in recent times – and keep their noses just in front of Championship rivals Dundee United.

And, having lost to United in their previous outing, the defender was adamant that simply winning was the over-riding concern on Saturday, particularly at a time when Lennon is having to cope with a lengthening injury list as goalkeeper Ofir Marciano joined influential midfielders John McGinn and Fraser Fyvie on the sidelines alongside striker James Keatings, who has been out of action for almost two months.

Lennon does, of course, have the strength in depth to hopefully cope with the absence of such players but Hanlon says it would be unfair to expect a clutch of enforced changes not to have some impact on what had been in, the main, a settled team.

Pointing out how striker Jason Cummings, who made his first start since early October after a loss of form had resulted in him being dropped by Lennon, had looked a touch “rusty”, Hanlon said: “We’ve had pretty much the same team every week with perhaps only a change here and there before Keats was injured and then, suddenly, we’ve had the double blow of John and Fraser being out and now Ofir has joined them.

“The performance at Tannadice [a 1-0 defeat by Dundee United] wasn’t great and again at the weekend it was a bit scrappy as well. But having these guys out is maybe why they’ve not been the most fluent of performances. The guys who have come in have been sitting on the bench for a few weeks waiting to get a shot and aiming to take it but it does take time for people to settle in.

“You could see Jason was a wee bit rusty after being out and it does take a wee run of games to get up to speed. As a defender, I’ve been used to having John and Fraser in front of me so it is a bit different but the boys have got a good result and we have to be happy with that.

“It wasn’t the prettiest performance of the season but it was three points just the same as any other win. It’s been said before, to win titles you sometimes need to win ugly. We’ve definitely played much better but it’s three points to take us closer to where we want to be.”

The loss on Tayside which allowed United to draw level on points with Hibs at the top of the table – although Lennon’s side enjoy a much better goal difference – prompted a wave of self doubt to course through some sections of the fans, that anxiety all too evident as they watched Hanlon and his team-mates make a sluggish start against a Dumbarton team which had suffered the humiliation of being knocked out of the Scottish Cup on their own pitch by Bonnyrigg Rose.

However, Hanlon insisted Lennon’s players can cope with the burden of expectation as they seek to win promotion at the third time of asking, the 26-year-old believing the flak they’d received following the defeat by United as being somewhat exaggerated.

He said: “That comes with being at Hibs and secondly being favourites for the league. It was a disappointing result. We didn’t play well and we have to play better. But, if we score our penalty it’s a different game, we’d probably have gone on to win and everyone would have come away all singing and dancing claiming it had been a great performance and so on. There are fine margins in football. That’s why I tend not to get too high after a win or too low after a defeat. You move on and we did that. We worked hard in training all week and got our reward with the win.

“I think the fans got a wee bit anxious early on against Dumbarton because they’d been beaten by Bonnyrigg during the week and people expect that you will wipe the floor with them because of that. Dumbarton worked hard, did their best to stop us playing and I thought they played quite well at times.

“They had a bit of possession, more so in the first half, I didn’t feel we were under any real threat at any time. The flip side is we have to be better. It’s our stadium and we should be dominating games.”

After that slow start, Lennon’s players did exactly that, the Hibs boss adamant his side could have been a couple of goals ahead before Hanlon eventually broke the deadlock on the stroke of half-time, meeting Cumming’s corner to drive the ball home from ten yards out. Hanlon himself had a couple of chances beforehand as had Graham and admitted he should have scored with the first of them as he rose to meet an Andrew Shinnie corner. He said: “We’d been knocking on the door so it was good to get one before half-time.

“I was just getting myself into positions where I thought the ball was going to go. My first header was a real chance but I probably caught it too well, the second I just tried to help it on and it was an easy save for the goalie.

“It was a good time to score. I knew it was getting close to half-time but after scoring I got myself back into position and then checked on the stadium clock to find it was bang on the 45th minute. Jason told me this was the first time he’s really been on taking corners but he put in a few great deliveries.”

In all Hibs had 11 corners in the game and, Hanlon revealed, he felt it was about time Lennon’s side began capitalising on earning so many set-pieces every week, telling his fellow defenders Darren McGregor and Liam Fontaine that he believed one of them would score against Dumbarton.

He said: “I told them just before kick-off that we were going to do so because we need to chip in. We’ve got big boys going up for corners and if we can get a head on them it helps the team take the pressure off the strikers and midfielders.

“We get more than enough corners in games and we need to score a few more. That’s three for the season for me but hopefully there will be a few more to come between now and the end of the season.”