At the end of April, one of the hardest decisions of the season will have to be made: who will be announced as Hibs’ player of the year.
Just under 12 months ago, centre-back Darren McGregor picked up the award, while left-back Lewis Stevenson was honoured by his team-mates, winning the players’ player of the year.
This year the award is harder to predict, such has been the quality of individual performances to go along with the team’s displays. Narrowing the shortlist to four was hard enough, let alone picking an outstanding player.
Both McGregor and, more so Stevenson, have had really good seasons on their return to the Premiership. The latter has given more than enough evidence that he belongs at this level, while it has to be noted that striker Flo Kamberi and midfielder Scott Allan have both had a significant impact since signing on loan in January.
However, there could only be four.
It has been a slog for the 28-year-old to gain the recognition and respect he deserves outside of the club. Similar to Hibs, dropping to the Championship has, in a strange way, been positive for his career. Ironically, that scenario would have been highly unlikely if Hanlon was not injured for the run-in of the 2013-2014 season and subsequent play-offs that condemned Hibs to relegation from the top flight.
In the last few years Hanlon has embraced being one of Hibs’ senior players and leaders. He’ll never be a ranter and raver and doesn’t need to be with his personality and approach to the game. Holding the Hibs captaincy was once a burden for Hanlon, but as he has proved when deputising for current captain David Gary, the armband is no longer the burden it may have been in the past.
Allied to that, Hanlon has become a more rounded, confident defender. There has never been a question about his footballing ability, it’s more his approach to the grittier elements of defending. Now he has that part to his game.
Despite the no-nonsense reliability of the aforementioned McGregor and undoubted talent of fellow centre-back Efe Ambrose, Hanlon’s consistency has marked him out in the league’s third-meanest defence. The back-three Hibs often adopt plays into his hands, allowing him to carry the ball forward and play more progressive and intelligent passes than his defensive colleagues. A familiar sight this season has been Hanlon’s galloping runs down the left as if he is the wing-back.
Players who had played or continue to play with him are effusive in their praise of his qualities and they are beginning to be widely recognised, so much so that Hanlon – called into the Scotland squad for the first time back in November – can feel rightly miffed that he wasn’t included for the most recent national team get-together last month.
“If only he could stay fit ...” It has been a familiar lament of many, including McGeouch’s own coaches. Aged 25, the little midfielder should have amassed a lot more than 150 appearances, but this is his first season where, as a regular first-team player, he has not been hindered by injuries.
It would have been understandable if there were questions about his durability long-term, but this season McGeouch has tackled any doubts head on and has been a constant in the centre of the Hibs midfield, starting 26 league games and winning a call-up to the Scotland squad. As the season has progressed, his role has evolved.
Before the arrival of Scott Allan, he worked as a No.8, bringing the team together with enforcer Marvin Bartley offering protection behind. However, as Lennon sought to get McGeouch, Allan and John McGinn in the same side, it has been McGeouch who has dropped deepest.
As a No.6, McGeouch’s role has become more pivotal and he has thrived in it. If McGinn brings anarchy to the Hibs midfield, driving forward at will, McGeouch is all about control, enjoying the responsibility being the conductor. Look at the statistics for the Scottish Premiership this season and he’s in the top ten for passes, through passes and passes to the final third. Hibs funnel their play through him, knowing he will take care of the ball, whether under pressure or not.
Out of contract in June, re-signing him would be Hibs’ best bit of business of the summer window.
Turn back time and put the current John McGinn into the 1990s and you can see him taking part in the Gauntlet in Gladiators. There are few things more enjoyable when watching Hibs than seeing McGinn pick up the ball in the middle of the pitch, turn, burrow, bound and bounce, using both his momentum and that of his opponents’ to propel him forward and launch his team on yet another attack.
Not many players are as involved as McGinn. A quick look at those stats and you’ll find the midfielder feature in the top ten of shots, dribbles, defensive duels, fouls, passes, through passes, passes to the final third. He is the very definition of all-action. He has been talked up as the heir to current Celtic and former Scotland captain/midfielder Scott Brown, but they are very different players who perform very different roles.
He has been the driving force for Hibs, one which the opposition have targeted with brute force. McGinn is more than capable of taking care of himself and giving as good as he gets, but it would be understandable if the constant fouls has unnerved him at times. Yet he continues to pick up the ball and look to be positive. That’s exactly why fans buy tickets and turn up to matches. To watch players like McGinn.
Perhaps he should have scored a few more goals or provided a few more assists, but it can take nothing away from the positive vibe he brings to the team and the effect that has his team-mates and Hibs fans. He plays as if his belly is never full, hungry for more and that’s why he will go on to play at a higher level and many times for Scotland.
No Hibs player has taken as big a stride forward in his development as Boyle. Suspicion surrounded his transition from Championship player to Premiership player. He has previously played in the top tier with Dundee but that was following a move from the fourth tier and his raw talents did not transfer.
Under former head coach Alan Stubbs and current Hibs boss Neil Lennon, he has become a more refined player. It hasn’t been an immediate progression. Just last season Lennon was bemused at the player’s tendency to fall over. However, it was clear he was a player worth sticking with. He has the one commodity which makes up for any number of weaknesses and puts the fear into opponents: pace. He has it in abundance.
Slowly the weaker elements of his game have become less pronounced. This season Hibs fans have witnessed a player who has thrived as a wing-back, capable of working both ways, bringing balance to the team. His game-intelligence has been his biggest improvement. What runs to make, when to make them and when to track.
The 24-year-old has been unplayable at times. His assist against Partick Thistle just last weekend was case in point. Few players would have reached the ball as it headed to the byline before cutting it back to find striker Jamie Maclaren to score. He may, at times, lack the composure which would have seen him net or provide many more goals, but that too his improving.