IT is a shame for Paul Hanlon that at 18, his mind probably wasn’t all that focused on his pension pot. Had it been, then the Hibernian stalwart could now well be looking forward to a very comfortable retirement indeed.

Hanlon, you see, was Lionel Messi’s direct opponent when the then Barcelona golden boy donned his famous number 10 shirt for the very first time, in a friendly against Hibs at Murrayfield back in the summer of 2008.

With the greatest of respect to Hanlon, you might be able to venture a decent stab at how it went. Messi, who has now been anointed by many as the greatest footballer of all time after his starring role in Argentina’s World Cup triumph, led the Hibs youngster a merry dance in a thrilling 45-minute appearance, scoring once and setting up two others as Barca led 4-0 at the interval.

They would go on to score two more after Messi took his leave on what was a bruising - if entirely predictable - night for Mixu Paatelainen’s side, but it was an evening that neither young Hanlon nor his manager would ever forget.

In the end, Hanlon didn’t walk away with that prized number 10  jersey, but Paatelainen believes he would have come away from the chastening experience with something of value nonetheless, and something that will have served him in his long career since.

“Messi put on quite a show,” said Paatelainen. “Like the rest of the Barca players.

“After about 15-20 minutes I thought ‘please, please let the ground open up and swallow me’. It was like a tsunami!

“They dominated straight away, keeping the ball and playing their diagonal passes that really killed us.

“They created one on ones against our full-backs, and Messi was out on the right that day. So, when he got the ball, he was one on one against young Hanlon, who I think was 18 at the time.

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“Messi was already being spoken about as one of the all-time greats back then. It was also Pep Guardiola’s first match in charge of Barcelona after stepping up from the second team. It was a special occasion, and their players – like Messi – wanted to impress.

“The thing about Messi was his sharpness. He had the dribbling skills, the finishing ability and all that, and even though he was a youngster then, we knew exactly what we were up against.

“We told all of our players what to do in such-in-such a situation and all that, but when you face quality players of that level of technical ability and sharpness, who have the timing of the runs and the trickery, then you are on the back foot.

“It was a great learning curve though, and going into the dressing room after the game I could say to the players ‘look, that’s the top level in the world. Never mind Britain or Europe’. It was good for them to see it, and show them how far they had to go.

The Herald: Lionel Messi meets young fans as he arrives in Scotland for pre-season training with Barcelona in 2008.Lionel Messi meets young fans as he arrives in Scotland for pre-season training with Barcelona in 2008. (Image: SNS)

“I think those experiences help young players. Though at the time that it happened, it was horrible.

“Paul has gone on to have a great career. I wouldn’t normally have considered putting an 18-year-old up against Messi in any circumstances, but Paul was a tough character, a level-headed guy with lots of attributes, and he wasn’t the type of guy to shy away from anything.

“It might not have been right after the game for Paul, but maybe a month or two later, or a year later, I’m certain he would have looked back at that game at some stage and thought ‘wow, I need to do that when I’m in that situation. If I’m playing against a player who is quicker than me, is a good dribbler, then I don’t let him come inside, I force him outside.’ All those things.

“It was a great learning experience for him and for them all. It was painful at the time, mind you!”

Despite the sting of the final result, Paatelainen says he would approach the conundrum of taking on that Barcelona side in the exact same way if he had the chance again today.

He believes that it is only in going toe-to-toe with the best, that you can ultimately learn from the best.

“It was a pre-season match, so I approached the game not to park the bus, not to completely nullify the play,” he said. “I thought ‘let’s play like usual with the same height and formation’.

“It was a huge, great learning curve for the players, so that was the idea in my head. Then obviously, with how the match started…as a manager seeing those waves coming at us, it was something.

“They had Thierry Henry, Messi and the rest. They knew how to pass the ball, let me tell you.

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“But I don’t regret having a go. Deep down I knew it might go horribly, but I thought that was the best way for the players to learn from the opportunity.

“We’re talking about the highest quality in the world, and we can only learn from that. It was a privilege to see it up close.

“It was the heaviest defeat of my career, but with it being Guardiola’s first game and Messi playing and all that, it was a great experience for me as a coach as well.

“Some people said I was stupid for approaching the game in a normal manner rather than playing a back five and parking the bus, but I thought, bullishly, why not learn from this against the best?

“Very rarely would we have a chance to test ourselves against a team of that quality.”

That is a mantra that was echoed by Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou this season as his side made the step up to the Champions League, an uncompromising philosophy that Paatelainen admires.

“You need to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and that’s what happens when you play at a higher level,” he said.

“It is important to look back and make sure that the next time you face a player of that calibre, you make sure you use those lessons.

“If you are a Celtic player who dominates most of the matches in the Scottish Premiership, then you don’t necessarily learn that much about them.

“When they play against Real Madrid and the top players in Europe, then that improves you as a player. It’s a totally new set-up, a whole new situation, and if you analyse it and take it positively, it’s a great opportunity to learn.”