While most of his team-mates will be thankful for the three-week break they’ve just begun, for Hibs defender Paul Hanlon the temporary halt to the Premiership season couldn’t have been more poorly timed.
Dogged by a thigh injury for the best part of three months, Hanlon had forced his way back into boss Neil Lennon’s side just as the winter break kicked in, and now there is no game until Hibs face League Two outfit Elgin City in the Scottish Cup on January 19.
Lennon’s squad will fly out to Dubai on Saturday night for a week of warm-weather training in preparation for the second half of what has been, thus far, a disappointing season, the feeling of frustration only heightened by defeat in their last game of 2018, the derby against arch-rivals Hearts.
For Hanlon, though, there was no time to relax before that flight, the 28-year-old putting in some extra days at East Mains as he seeks to make up for lost time.
The injury Hanlon sustained in the Betfred Cup quarter-final against Aberdeen at the end of September saw him added to a lengthy casualty list which, admitted Lennon, had restricted him to naming the same team only once or twice, the Hibs head coach revealing that only two of his first-team squad – Efe Ambrose and Steven Whittaker – had been fit throughout the first half of the season.
Lennon claimed he had never known anything like it while Hanlon himself compared it to the situation nearly a decade ago when Hibs went to Tynecastle with a threadbare side – one missing key figures such as Rob Jones, Chris Hogg, Sol Bamba, Colin Nish and Denes Rosa – only to win 1-0 thanks to a late Derek Riordan penalty.
“We were decimated by injuries back then,” he recalled. “But we’ve had a fair few to contend with this season. To be honest, you don’t want this break because you are on the back of a defeat, you want to get playing again right away.
“But, in terms of getting players back fit and fresh, ready to go again for the second half of the season, we probably need it. From what I have heard, the facilities in Dubai are first-class. We have to go there and work hard and push on in the second half of the season because, right now, we are not in good enough position in terms of where this club should be.
“For me, it was a couple of days off and back into training before going to Dubai, getting myself ready.”
Hanlon described Lennon’s squad as “unrecognisable” given the spate of injuries which saw the likes of himself, club captain David Gray, Darren McGregor, Ofir Marciano, Flo Kamberi, Jamie Maclaren, Marvin Bartley and Thomas Agyepong all sidelined for lengthy periods.
And although, like Hanlon, Gray returned to make substitute appearances against Rangers and Hearts while Bartley sat on the bench throughout the derby, Lewis Stevenson and Ryan Porteous were added to the casualty list prior to the break, joining Agyepong and Marciano in the treatment room. Hibs were dealt a further blow when Martin Boyle, who had missed the derby along with Mark Milligan and Maclaren as they reported for Asian Cup duty with Australia, suffered a knee injury in the Socceroos’ final warm-up match against Oman at the weekend. As a result, he will miss the entire tournament and has been sent back to Edinburgh to recover, with Aussie head coach Graham Arnold suggesting he’ll be out of action for “an indefinite period”.
Boyle will be assessed by Hibs’ own medical team but Lennon will have his fingers firmly crossed that by the time the Capital side return to Premiership action – away to Motherwell on January 23 – he’ll finally have what resembles a full squad at his disposal, one which he plans to strengthen in any case during the current transfer window.
Hanlon shares his gaffer’s hopes that will be the case, pointing to how a strong second half of last season put Hibs in the race for second place behind champions Celtic until the penultimate game.
He said: “We came on really strongly. We only lost that one game and hopefully that will prove to be the case again.
“Unfortunately, the first half of the season has been a bit stop-start. We’ve never managed to get that flow going for a period of games so that’s something we need to work on.”
The derby loss was only Hibs’ second defeat at home in 2018, a pretty impressive record but, as far as Hanlon was concerned, that didn’t ease the pain of seeing Craig Levein’s players celebrating on the Easter Road turf.
However, while admitting he and his team-mates had lacked a bit of quality on the day, Hanlon was left to bemoan another dose of bad luck as Hearts goalkeeper Colin Doyle got his fingertips to Steven Whittaker’s netbound shot, deflecting it on to the inside of the post only for the ball to spin the length of his goal-line and out. Recalling Oli Shaw’s “ghost goal” in Gorgie last season, he said: “The luck seems to have gone against us a bit in derbies. We’d come back at Ibrox a few days earlier to draw and, although we had Hearts under plenty of pressure, we huffed and puffed a bit in front of their goal and couldn’t create any clear-cut chances.
“We bombarded their box but nothing fell for us. But that’s when you have to turn a bad ball into a good one.”