Simon Grayson and Neil Lennon go back a long way. Just over two decades, in fact.
Grayson, in a reasonably secure job as manager of Preston North End, speaks from a position of relative authority when it comes to judging the career moves of a man he has remained friendly with since they first became team-mates at Leicester City 20 years ago.
Eyebrows have been raised in some quarters over Lennon, a three-time title winner as Celtic manager, deciding to become Hibs head coach following a difficult 17-month reign at Bolton Wanderers.
Grayson himself admits he was surprised when he first got wind of his old mate’s plans to drop into the Scottish Championship. However, he can see exactly why the 44-year-old has taken the bold move to get back on the horse at Hibs, who are bidding to return to the Premiership after two years of solid foundation-building by Alan Stubbs. The North End manager believes it represents a golden chance for Lennon to rebuild his reputation and banish the most chastening period of his managerial career.
“I can see exactly why he’s taken the job because it’s a very stable and forward-thinking club with a big-club mentality,” Grayson said. “When you look from the outside, Hibernian have got a bit of stability now and they’ve been close to getting promotion over the last few years. They had a fantastic result winning the Scottish Cup and if it hadn’t been for the chance to work in the English Championship, Alan Stubbs would still be working up there, which shows what size of club it is.
“I was surprised to an extent when I saw Lenny was in for the job because I thought he might have tried to go for another job in England but I know from speaking to him in the past how much he loves living up in Scotland. I think that’ll be a big part of it. But most importantly, it’s a new challenge for him at a club that is ready to move forward. Neil is an ambitious manager and Hibs are not happy to stay where they are – they want to get promoted. He’ll think he can get them up next season and that they can keep progressing and challenge the top teams in the country.
“He knows the Scottish game well, what’s expected at a club like Hibs and he’ll be desperate to try and replicate what Mark Warburton did at Rangers last season and take them back to the Premiership.”
Grayson played an indirect part in Lennon becoming available to Hibs after his Preston side defeated Bolton 2-1 at the Macron Stadium in what proved to be his old pal’s final match in charge three months ago. As someone managing a club in the same division and the same part of England, Grayson was well aware of the off-field turbulence Lennon had to cope with at Wanderers.
“I text Lenny after he left Bolton,” said Grayson. “We’d actually beaten them the game before, so I think our result got him the sack, unfortunately. Lenny was dealing with a lot of off-field problems, which were also seeping on to the pitch – you could see that when we played them. When we went in front, or when things weren’t going for Bolton, there was a lot of negativity around the place that wasn’t helping Lenny. It’s like any club if there’s a lot of off-field problems, it’s always likely to have an effect on the players eventually.
“Neil’s had fantastic success and a lot of good things happening in his managerial career, so sometimes the odd hiccup along the way can remind you what you need to do and spur you on to become a better manager. We’re always learning in this game.”
As Lennon bids to bounce back from one of the most difficult periods of his managerial career, Grayson can recall him doing likewise as a player. When the Northern Irishman first arrived at Leicester from Crewe Alexandra, Grayson, two years his senior, sensed he was a man on a mission to make up for being released by Manchester City, his first club. In what was a testing start to his professional career, Lennon also had to overcome a serious back injury early in his time at Crewe before going on to become one of the star men in a team that also included Robbie Savage and Danny Murphy. After landing a £750,000 move to the Foxes in February 1996, Lennon’s burning desire to succeed would remain evident throughout his career in football.
“I remember him coming in from Crewe as a young lad,” said Grayson. “I wasn’t too aware of him before that but he had a reputation for being a decent lad and a good player, and he fitted in straight away.
“He was a good lad to have about the place – a typical young Irish boy who liked a night out. But he was really determined to come back and succeed after the adversity he had at Manchester City with his back injury. He had a fiery attitude but he was such a willing, hard worker. He’d cover every blade of grass on a match-day and on the training pitch. He was one of the best midfielders I ever played with. We got promoted the season he came in and he ended up going on to be a figurehead at Leicester and at other clubs beyond that.
“It’s difficult when players are young to tell if they’re likely to go into management but Lenny always wanted to know what was going on and wanted to ask questions. I think we were all like that at Leicester at that time because we were learning off Martin O’Neill. It says a lot that quite a few of Martin’s team have gone into management since.”