By: Hibernian Media on 21 Mar, 2020 10:00
“We had our day at Hampden and it’s all because of you.”
A childhood Hibee turned Scottish Cup winner, Paul Hanlon has finally earned himself a song after all these years in green and white.
With over 400 appearances for Hibernian in a career in the first team spanning more than 10 years, Paul’s connection with the club has been consistent and long-standing.
Like many young football fans, Paul’s early experiences of Easter Road can be traced back to his immediate family and, in particular, his Dad Derek.
“I probably have a similar story to most Hibs fans, as growing up it was in the family. It was my Dad who took me along when I was quite young - probably four or five – I don’t remember too much at that age but he was my main influence.”
A European night under the floodlights is the match which springs to mind from many visits to watch Hibernian during his youth. A Paco Luna-inspired 3-2 win over Greek side AEK Athens ultimately ended in disappointment but the night was a memorable one.
“It was a massive game. You speak to a lot of Hibs fans that were there that night and it’s one that sticks in the memory.
“It was an incredible atmosphere. That was at the time when I was really passionate about the club and I knew all the players. I loved going to watch Hibs back then.”
Deployed mainly as a midfielder in his early days as a football player, Paul looked up to two hugely influential figures in the Hibs squad in the Alex McLeish era.
“Franck Sauzee has always been my favourite – he played mostly in defence for Hibs but he had the odd games in midfield as well. I enjoyed watching Russell Latapy as well - I really looked up to them and wanted to be like them when I got older.”
Paul learned his trade under the stewardship of Tam Smith at Edinburgh’s Hutchison Vale BC. After combining football with his school studies Paul was given the chance to train full time with Hibernian, an offer he was never going to reject.
“I knew I was doing well but there are loads of kids at 14 or 15 who are all great players, but it’s a different story getting into a first-team squad.
“I was lucky to stay on until fifth year, so I managed to get some Highers before I left and I went into full-time football at 16. It was an opportunity I couldn’t really turn down, to be honest, especially at my boyhood club.”
Paul’s move to Hibernian in his teenage years led to him meeting Alastair Stevenson, a man who would prove to have a profound influence in his football career.
“Alastair took our team at Under-15s and he was the first one who said to me that he thought I’d be a good defender. I’d played a few games at left-back and he said longer term that he could see me as a left-sided centre-half.
“At the time I was thinking it wasn’t for me. I had based my game around being an attacking midfielder and all of a sudden I was being told I’d make a good defender which is not something I had thought about too often.”
As Paul moved from midfield to defence he progressed through the youth ranks at the club. He says Stevenson always showed faith in him, even getting him out of school to allow him to take part in matches.
“There was a spell in my last year at school when he’d speak to them if there was a game on a Friday and they allowed me to play. He always thought there was a good chance for me to progress at Hibs.
“He really pushed me on and showed a lot of faith in me. He saw the potential I had to get into the Hibs first team as a defender. Who knows? If I’d stayed in midfield I might never have had a career in the game.”
Paul joined Hibernian on a full-time basis when he was 16, making the transition from avid fan to player at a time when the squad was full of recognisable names.
“I came in at a stage when Tony Mowbray was still the manager. When I left school at 16 I went from supporting Hibs to being in the same working environment as guys who I had just been watching every Saturday.
“Every Hibs fan knows the football they were playing back then with a really young and exciting team. It was a joy to watch every week.
“I’ve been lucky enough to go on to share a dressing room with Steven Whittaker and Kevin Thomson, guys who I looked up to when I was younger. I wasn’t too far behind them - it wasn’t long after they left that I broke into the first team.”
At the age of only 17, and with injuries to regular first-team left-backs David Murphy and Lewis Stevenson, Paul was thrust into the team in Mixu Paatelainen’s first game in charge of Hibs.
“I was lucky enough to get the chance and I am really grateful to Mixu. It was his first game and he was a legend from his playing days and desperate to get off to a good start.
“For him to put his faith in me at only 17 was massive for me. All credit to him, he went with it and Alastair Stevenson was a big influence in Mixu making the decision.”
After years of playing football with his friends wearing Hibernian kits as a youngster and visiting Easter Road with his dad, Paul was delighted to pull on the shirt for the first time as a Hibernian player.
“It was a dream to play for Hibs. To do it once was a dream come true. To see my name on the back of the shirt after having all the kits when I was growing up - sometimes with a player’s name and others with my own - to see it for real was a great feeling.”
In over 10 years as a Hibs player Paul has been asked to captain the side on many occasions. Although never official club captain, he says being asked to wear the armband on a matchday is something which fills him with immense pride.
“To lead the team out at any time is a massive honour and I’ve been lucky enough to do it a number of times now. It’s something I do with pride, it’s a role I take on board and do my best in.”
With such a deep-rooted understanding of the club, its history and its fanbase, Paul believes sometimes his affection for the cause can mean the difficult times have been more hard-hitting over the years.
“Being a fan, first and foremost, I do feel it a lot. I’ve got quite a few good friends that are Hearts fans but my family are mostly Hibs supporters so it does make it difficult.
“It was hard during the tougher spells because I know how much pressure is on and how big the club is - I think there’s more disappointment involved.”
Most Hibernian fans you ask will tell you the harder times in recent years were worth it for the scenes of euphoria at Hampden Park in May 2016.
It’s a cup run which Paul was a key part of from start to finish and one he looks back on with much happiness.
“That day is the biggest day in our history, to be part of the squad that won the cup after so long meant the world to me.
“Going back to the equaliser at Tynecastle, obviously as a Hibs fan it is a dream to score against Hearts. It’s not until we go on to win the cup that you look back on the run and realise how important it was.
“It was just great to be part of the squad that eventually did it after being involved in a couple of squads that lost in finals. To have hung around and been there when we managed to do it was an honour.”
Paul’s efforts in bringing the Scottish Cup home to Leith, and, in particular, his stretched equaliser in front of the packed Roseburn Stand, have earned him a place in the Easter Road songbook.
He hopes in his remaining years as a Hibernian player that he can continue to give the fans things to sing about.
“It’s an amazing feeling and something I’ll never get sick of. When you’re a wee boy kicking a ball about those are the things you think about, getting your name on the back of the strip and having the fans singing your name.
“It’s great to hear and I hope I can keep putting performances in and be more successful. It was great winning the cup but I don’t want to retire with just the Scottish Cup. Hopefully we can win another cup or two before my time is up.”
Very few players stay at clubs long enough to earn a testimonial in modern football. Paul Hanlon, alongside teammate Lewis Stevenson, have broken the mould in recent years.
“I was delighted to get to ten years as a first team player at Hibs, through some tougher times and really memorable moments as well.
“It was a good chance to look back over my career, look through the managers we’ve been through, the good times and bad times. It made me stop and reflect on how far I’ve come.
“I’ve got to thank the testimonial committee. It was the same people as Lewis had for his and they stuck together and agreed they’d do the same for me. It was an amazing year and a great experience so I’ve got to thank them for doing that for me.”
A product of the two players’ testimonial years was the creation of the Hanlon Stevenson Foundation, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of young people in and around Edinburgh through the power of sport.
“It’s our chance to give a bit back. We had some money left over between our testimonials which we wanted to put towards charities, but we came up with the idea that it would be good to provide something that would last a bit longer.
“Instead of one-off donations we thought we could make a big difference to kids in the Edinburgh area, less privileged kids who maybe don’t get as much sport or football.
“When you grow up it’s great to be involved in sport, whether you are the best player, the worst or anything in between, it’s a great social environment to be in.
“I’ve still got good mates now who I met when I was five years old at Hutchie. It’s a great thing to be involved in and it’s a shame that some kids aren’t in a position where they can experience that so hopefully we can help as many as possible to do that.”
With Paul’s affiliation to Hibs lasting a lifetime, he looks back incredibly fondly on his progression from young fan to first team regular and believes he will be back at Easter Road with his own kids once he hangs up his boots.
“It’s my footballing life. Every part of my life where I have been involved with football has been in relation to Hibs. Whether it’s being a supporter, a youth team player or as a first-team player – Hibs have been involved in every stage of my life.
“When it comes to the stage when I have retired, I’m sure I’ll be back at Easter Road and supporting the team then too.”
Words: Daniel Shields.