As a player, Neil Lennon was the man Hibs fans – and those of most other clubs – loved to hate, the fiery red-haired midfielder who appeared to revel in the knowledge that outside Celtic there were few who liked him.
The reaction he provoked from opposition supporters was, though, a back-handed compliment, a recognition of his win-at-all-costs mentality, happy to make enemies wherever he went so long as he and his team-mates went home with the victory they’d come for. It’s a trait Lennon has taken into management, someone who will stand his ground and never back down, an attitude he’s determined to impart on those for whom he is now “gaffer” at Easter Road.
And it is an approach which has helped win over the Hibs support, as many had eyed him with some suspicion when he took over following Alan Stubbs’ surprise decision to quit only weeks after enjoying that historic Scottish Cup victory.
There was little doubt 14 months ago that in securing Lennon on a two-year deal, chief executive Leeann Dempster and her backroom staff had pulled off a major coup, bringing in a big figure not only in Scottish football but further afield. Even so, there were those who wondered how it would all work out, would Lennon see himself almost as someone bigger than the club itself, could he work with a much smaller budget than that he’d enjoyed in Glasgow where he’d won plenty of silverware and guided the Hoops into the last 16 of the Champions League?
Today, though, as it is revealed that Lennon and the club’s hierarchy have begun discussions into extending the 46-year-old’s contract, you shall find most of those questioning voices have softened, Lennon having won the Championship title at the first time of asking, so ending Hibs’ three-year exile from the Premiership, the football perhaps more pragmatic than it had been under Stubbs and, while only one more point was gained than in the previous season, the league was actually won by 11 points.
“It feels like a good fit” was Lennon’s reply when asked how he felt he had settled into his new job, the former Northern Ireland internationalist apparently at ease and enjoying life away from the goldfish bowl of the Old Firm.
An engaging, thoughtful and thought-provoking individual, someone never short of an opinion and willing to answer every question thrown at him, Lennon, though, showed he had lost none of that abrasive side, with Hibs fans delighted to see someone come out fighting on their behalf.
He had, of course, famously branded his new charges “a boy band” on the day he stepped through the door at Easter Road, a side full of style but lacking somewhat in substance, an accusation which has resurfaced from time to time since, invariably following a disappointing performance or result.
However, having done so, Lennon proved immensely loyal to those players he had inherited, each and every one of them facing the end of their contracts offered new deals which, with only a couple of exceptions, were accepted which, it is reasonable to infer, proves they believe in their manager and the direction in which he intends to take the club.
But, while retaining the nucleus of his squad, Lennon and his team have raised more than a few eyebrows with the recruits they have brought on board over the course of the past few months. Who, for example, can recall the last time Hibs boasted seven full internationalists in the squad?
There’s little doubt the manager’s name has played no small part in persuading some of them to join the Premiership new boys, the return of Anthony Stokes for a third spell at the club, for example, surely completely down to Lennon for whom he had played at Celtic where he enjoyed some of the best football of his career.
If Lennon had any doubts himself as he took up the reins on the east side of Edinburgh – and remember he had been burnt by his experience in his second season at cash-strapped Bolton Wanderers which made his next job all the more important to him – they didn’t show, that self-assurance always on display, so much so it led him to claim Hibs could be “best of the rest” this season.
A little bit of hyperbole most certainly, but an indication that Lennon will be looking to build not only through the coming months but years. As he himself has readily pointed out, Hibs are far from the finished article but, you sense, he’d like to take them much further in that direction if he can. Stability will be the key to that ambition and to have Lennon extend his contract by two years would provide more of that precious commodity, time, at a club which at one stage had a reputation for firing and hiring managers.
Just as Lennon enjoys a close working relationship with his players, it’s the same behind the scenes where the board have worked tirelessly to give him the tools to do the job within the budget available, a commitment that won’t waver.
As things stand, in Lennon’s words: “It’s a good fit.”