Neil Lennon can be his team’s harshest critic, never slow to let his players know when they’ve slipped below the high standards he’s setting, his demands having never changed through being a player at Celtic, that club’s manager and now as boss of Hibs.
Put simply, it’s having that winning mentality, something he obviously felt was lacking when he first walked through the door of the club to famously brand his new side a “boy band”, one capable of playing attractive, easy-on-the-eye football but equally liable to inexplicably let things slip.
Lennon would be the first to admit they are far from being the finished article but, if these 90 minutes at Ibrox proved one thing, it is that he’s building a team in his own image, one which will roll up the sleeves, fight to the end and give everything for the cause.
A goal down in just two minutes at Ibrox, Hibs, like most other teams, could simply have buckled and accepted what was coming while hoping that the final scoreline wouldn’t be too sore to bear.
And, yes, Lennon’s players could have found themselves blown away as they endured a torrid opening 15 minutes, former Hibs striker Kenny Miller watching a first-time effort drift just wide after keeper Ofir Marciano’s shanked clearance dropped at his feet and then firing a half-chance off the post.
However, slowly but surely they steaded the ship, began to get a grip on the game as man-of-the-moment Simon Murray broke free to slot home his tenth goal of the season and so cancel out Alfredo Morelos’ earlier header, a moment which left Lennon questioning how the 5ft 9in Colombian striker managed to get above his defenders to meet a perfectly-placed free-kick from Daniel Candeias.
The Scottish Cup final of 15 months ago and the aftermath of those events at Hampden had, of course, bubbled away in the background as kick-off to this first meeting of the clubs since then became ever closer, the presence of Lennon, Anthony Stokes – scorer of two of Hibs’ goals in that historic 3-2 win – and Steven Whittaker, who got the treatment for the manner in which he left Ibrox five years ago, adding all sort of sub-plots.
As such the atmosphere within Ibrox was febrile, the tension such it could almost be cut with knife leaving few surprised as flashpoint followed flashpoint. Stokes and Rangers’ James Tavernier had already been booked for a sixth-minute clash when the game erupted, Vykintas Slivka’s challenge on Graham Dorrans a foul but nothing more. Dorrans, however, reacted and stupidly others got themselves involved in a midfield melee in which referee John Beaton saw enough wrong in Ryan Jack’s actions – reputedly putting his head towards that of Stokes, although the Hibs player himself wasn’t entirely innocent – to produce a straight red card.
By that time, Lennon had got himself embroiled, cupping his hands to his ears as Murray scored before making a first pumping move to which, shock and horror, the Rangers fans behind the away dugout who had been happy to subject him to all sorts of abuse, took offence.
Lennon, though, contended he had done nothing wrong, saying: “You are looking for things that aren’t there, I didn’t make a gesture. I am celebrating a goal, so what way are you meant to celebrate a goal? If I pick my nose somebody will find something to criticise me for. I’m celebrating a goal – so that’s the end of it.”
The Hibs boss also upset his Ibrox counterpart Pedro Caixinha, who later claimed he felt he was being treated differently to other managers in Scotland, and his backroom staff, his assistant Heldar Baptista even complaining to a police officer.
Again, though, Lennon professed to being bemused, saying: “Was I unhappy with that? Yes. He should have got back in his box, Funnily enough, he didn’t have something to say to me. I don’t know what he said. I assume he was unhappy with something. There were a few things that went on in their dugout I was unhappy about, but I didn’t go running off to people and telling them.”
But back to the match. Murray’s powerful running saw allowed him to fire a low cross into the danger area where Slivka picked up the ball only to see his shot deflect off Tavernier and into the back of the net to give Hibs the lead, the Lithuanian internationalist making it three as he took Lewis Stevenson’s throw-in on his thigh and buried a long-range effort beyond goalkeeper Wes Foderingham.
A Tavernier header ten minutes from time set up a pulsating finish but Hibs held on, their belief they could go to Ibrox and win totally vindicated. Whittaker said: “It’s nice for any team to come to Ibrox and win. It’s a great achievement. We believed we could do it and we’ve come away with three great points.”
Asked if he detected any difference in Lennon the manager to Lennon the player he faced on numerous occasions, Whittaker said: “There’s that similar determination – he’s a winner. He’s bedding that into the squad as much as possible. Those of us who have been in Old Firm teams have that winning mentality and we are hoping to bring that to Hibs with the talent we have.”
After a three-year absence from the Premiership, victories in their opening two games against Partick Thistle and now Rangers was as much as anyone could have hoped for but Whittaker shied away from making any predictions as to what the season may hold for him and his team-mates.
He said: “We’re not getting carried away. We have to concentrate on Hamilton this Saturday. Time will tell. We believe we have a good squad. We’ve started well but we are only two games into the season. Now it’s on to the next one. Hopefully, we can build that momentum and belief and then who knows what we can achieve.”
Lennon, though, was just happy to savour the moment. saying: “I’m thrilled with the win and with the character of my team. We showed quality and discipline. My only criticism was that we didn’t put Rangers away more comfortably when they went down to ten men, We cut them open at will and there’s not many teams who will do that there.”