Marvin Bartley has admitted he and his Easter Road team-mates felt like little more than an after-thought as the entire focus of Hibs trip to face Celtic centred on Neil Lennon.
The former Hoops player and manager was returning to the east end of Glasgow for the first time, enjoying mixed emotions as he was torn between the task of ending Brendan Rodgers’ side’s remarkable run of 57 matches unbeaten and anticipating a raucous welcome from the home support who still revere him for his trophy-laden time at the club.
Amid the hype surrounding their manager, Lennon’s players were almost forgotten. But, revealed Bartley, they were very much in his thoughts, the Northern Irishman spending hours on the training ground as he devised a plan which, ultimately, came within ten minutes of ending Celtic’s 16-months of supremacy against Scottish opposition.
“It was all about Neil Lennon and it was as if the second part of the conversation was Hibs,” admitted Bartley. “But I think it helped a bit because it took all the attention off us as players.
“The gaffer does that very well, he takes a lot of heat and pressure off the boys publicly and he probably did it on purpose. No-one was expecting Hibs, a team just out of the Championship and one people would have been expecting to be towards the bottom of the league, to go there and get anything.
“But he had us working hard on the training ground all week, working on a shape and going through a lot of scenarios. There was an awful lot of coaching from the gaffer – I probably heard his voice a bit more than I wanted. You couldn’t really hear him at Celtic Park with 60,000 people there but on the training ground he was drilling it into us.
“Yes, as players we had to go out there and do the job, but the gaffer and his coaching staff take an awful lot of credit, telling us where to be in certain situations and it worked.”
Lennon’s blueprint included Bartley and Lithuanian internationalist Vykintas Slivka being deployed to screen the back four, the pair at times venturing no further than 40 yards or so from their own goal-line as Celtic, as anticipated, enjoyed the bulk of possession although, paradoxically, Hibs had more shots at goal, more on target and won twice as many corners.
Bartley said: “Sometimes you have to put that shift in for the team. I had a specific job which meant I was probably doing lot more defending than normal and covering a lot more ground than normal. But the gaffer told me what had to be done, the same with Vicky.
“At the end of the day it was an excellent all-round performance, we defended well as a team and attacked well as a team, which was testament to the boys because it is hard work constantly pushing up and for the strikers to be dropping in to help. As a result it didn’t feel as if the gaps were too big between defence and midfield and midfield and attack.”
It wasn’t only Lennon’s tactics and formation which was tested but his players character as Callum McGregor fired Celtic in front after only 15 minutes but, insisted Bartley, he and his team-mates were prepared for such a scenario.
The 31-year-old said: “Celtic are a very good team with some really good attacking players so for them to score isn’t unheard of. You know they are probably going to score, whether that’s to go 1-0 up or to come back and make it 1-1 so there was no real panic. Many teams might have gone there and crumbled, but we kept our heads.”
An important stop from goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw to deny Odsonne Edouard a second Celtic goal before half-time laid the foundations for a second half performance from Hibs which had Rodgers’ side rocking, John McGinn firing an equaliser beyond Craig Gordon who then, somehow, managed to get across his line to get a hand to Steven Whittaker’s point-blank shot from Anthony Stokes’ knockdown.
It was a save which left everyone within Celtic Park shaking their heads in disbelief, Bartley admitting: “If I’d been playing FIFA and that happened I’d probably have turned off the computer saying it was cheating me, that’s how good a save it was.
“When I was the ball fall to Whitts I thought it was a goal – and then I see the ball going wide. I still can’t believe it wasn’t a goal.”
Gordon’s wonder save appeared to count for nothing when McGinn thundered another ferocious shot beyond the Scotland goalkeeper, only for McGregor to keep his nerve as he steered home his own second goal of the game to salvage a point for Celtic and to keep their unbeaten record intact.
Bartley said: “I think it would have been written in the stars had the gaffer gone back there and we had won. He’d got a great reception from their fans – although I was in the middle of the pitch booing him at that point – which shows what a great job he did there.
“I do think if we’d managed to get a block on McGregor’s shot we’d have seen the game out, but we were happy to have taken a point.”
Lennon, though, didn’t appear content to do so, replacing Slivka with on-loan Manchester City winger Brandon Barker and then withdrawing Bartley in favour of top scorer Simon Murray.
Bartley said: “He was very positive with his substitutes, he probably thought we might nick it in the last few minutes. Simon is like a Duracell bunny, he works hard for as long as he is on the pitch and those few minutes would have been a nightmare for their defenders because he doesn’t give you a minute’s rest.
“Fair play to the gaffer, he brought on attacking players and it might have gone the other way for us but he went for it. However, I’m sure he’ll be happy enough.
“Going to places like Celtic Park is what promotion was all about. It makes going to some of the smaller clubs in the Championship almost worthwhile. It was fantastic to play there in front of a full house and to come away knowing we gave them a great game.”