Paul Hanlon: Hibs boss right to prioritise defensive strength
At first glance Hibs may appear overloaded in central defence, Efe Ambrose, Darren McGregor, Paul Hanlon, Liam Fontaine and Jordon Forster all competing for a place in boss Neil Lennon's starting line-up.
But today Hanlon insisted the experiences of last season underline the need to have such a contingent, injuries forcing Lennon to draft in Nigerian internationalist Ambrose on an emergency loan to relieve a crisis at the back.
Now, though, the 27-year-old believes Lennon should, hopefully, not have to take such drastic action in the season ahead, the numbers at his disposal giving him the flexibility of operating with different defensive formations.
Hanlon himself was one of those casualties who caused his manager such headaches, a pelvic problem which required surgery resulting in him starting just one of Hibs’ last 20 matches having previously played every minute of every game.
Fontaine also found his season prematurely ended, sustaining an ankle injury which saw him also go under the surgeon’s knife while Forster suffered what was feared to be a serious shoulder injury caused by the challenge of Morton’s Kudos Oyenuga which sparked the touchline bust-up between Lennon and Cappielow boss Jim Duffy.
Hanlon said: “We’re pretty strong going into the new season, but we are going to need everyone. It will be a long campaign and you only need to look at last season when me and Daz played every game in the first half of the season and then, all of a sudden, Daz was the only centre-half left and we needed to bring in recruitments.
“We were quite lucky the club were in a position to do that.”
Faced with that nightmare Lennon turned to his former club Celtic, as he had done earlier in the season as he brought in Kris Commons on a short-term deal when confronted with a similar crisis in midfield when John McGinn, Fraser Fyvie and James Keatings were all out at the same time, signing Ambrose until the end of the season to shore up his defence and so help Hibs to the Championship title and promotion.
Lennon was similarly successful in convincing Ambrose to agree a two-year deal to return to Easter Road as his Celtic contract came to an end and, Hanlon admitted, it’s given everyone at the club a huge lift.
He said: “To get signings like Efe through the door is great. He is an international player, he’s done it at the very highest level and that’s exactly what you want.
“We all want Hibs to do well and the more quality players we can get in the better. Efe has made a big decision to come here, he obviously enjoyed his time with us last season and I’m delighted he’s back. We’ve also been linked with a few quality players who would be exciting for the fans.”
Lennon is already on the record as having challenged his players to finish “best of the rest” to Celtic with their exile from the top flight having come to an end but, while admitting that’s a tall order, former Scotland Under-21 captain Hanlon has no quibble with his manager setting the bar so high.
He said: “We’ve been in the Championship and there’s been a lot of change in the top flight. We just need to aim for top six and anything above that is a bonus.
“It’s great to see the gaffer has that belief in us and if we were to get second place I think that would amaze everyone with us just coming back up. We just need to focus on top six and take it from there.”
Hibs, however, step back up in a far better place than they were as they suffered that shock relegation, Hanlon one of the few players still at the club from that fateful day and so able to assess exactly what has changed.
He said: “There has been such a turnaround since the day we came back to training with no manager, not enough players for a five-a-side game and no goalies.
“It was a case of ‘do some running, get yourselves fit’. No-one knew what was happening.
“Now, look at the amount of supporters coming through the door every week and season ticket sales going through the roof. If you had said that would happen within three years I wouldn’t have believed it.
“It’s such a great place to be. Winning the Scottish Cup obviously helped, but it has just kept going. It’s snowballing and getting bigger and bigger. I’ve always said there’s potential here for this club to be really big and it seems everything is going in the right direction.”
After such an absence from the top flight Hanlon, naturally, is looking forward to being back in the Premiership and, he believes, he returns as a better player.
He said: “I definitely feel that. I feel like I have come on a lot in the last few seasons, probably just due to experience. I am looking forward to testing myself in the Premiership again and getting a good gauge of where I am in my career.”