He may be dropping down a rung or two on the career ladder, but no-one in attendance at Easter Road for his official unveiling was left in any doubt about Neil Lennon’s commitment to leading Hibs back up to the top level of Scottish football.
The Northern Irishman was in relaxed but bullish mood at his first proper media gathering as head coach yesterday. The drive and winning mentality that underpinned a successful playing career and a trophy-laden four-year stint as Celtic manager was evident throughout as he discussed his new role. Although working from the second tier of Scottish football, it is clear standards at Hibs will have to be at the highest level possible under Lennon’s watch.
“When you’re manager of Celtic you have to win the league, when you’re manager of Hibs you’ve got to win this league,” he declared, when asked if he was comfortable with the pressure of being hired to deliver promotion. “At Hibs we need to get promotion, either by winning the league or going through the play-offs. We need to get there by hook or by crook. It will be a dogfight.”
Lennon is of no mind to tolerate any excuses for failure to get promoted in the upcoming campaign. He knows last month’s historic Scottish Cup is viewed as a potential catalyst for the club. However, in typical fashion for a man who grew accustomed to a regular flow of glory as a player, he told his new charges they must forget about their golden May weekend and focus fully on adding to their achievements.
“I want them all to improve on it, build on it,” he said of the Scottish Cup. “I think it’s great for the fans, more than anyone else, all the leg-pulling they’ve had, the gloating and goading. They’ve got that monkey off their backs and it was a great achievement by the players but I don’t want them dining on that. When their careers are over they can but it’s important we get out of this division now.”
Lennon is aware that Hibs, for all their quality over the last couple of seasons, were renowned for not turning their domination of games into victories often enough. He intends to inject some penetration and ruthlessness into their play and suggested that he will look to add some more experience and physicality to the squad.
“There’s nothing wrong with good football if you get penetration and you get goals but at times you need to mix it up a little bit and you need to be physical,” he said. “It’s not easy playing in Scotland. At Celtic everyone wanted to beat you, you were the best team. Everyone raised their game that little bit extra and you have to have that mentality to get used to that. It’s a great feeling though to be winning and winning well and winning championships but I’ve got to pass that experience onto the players now. My teams can play and they can mix it when they need to. We have a young, vibrant squad that maybe lacks a bit of experience. We need a bit of physicality at certain points as well.”
Hibs have an unlikely European adventure to look forward to next month as a result of their Scottish Cup triumph. Lennon intends to ensure they are soon back on the continental stage by virtue of their league position. When asked where Hibs should be, he replied emphatically: “Top four. In my time at Celtic, Motherwell finished second. Inverness and Ross County are among the clubs that have been in the top six. St Johnstone have consistently been third or fourth in the last couple of seasons. I certainly feel I can take Hibs to that level. It is going to take a bit of time and a bit of patience is going to be required. It’s not going to happen overnight but that’s the plan.”
Hibs will benefit from having a man determined to rebuild his reputation after a 17-month stint at Bolton Wanderers in which he was ultimately ground down by the club’s shambolic off-field state. He is relishing the chance to get back on the managerial horse at a club clearly in far more stable shape under the shrewd stewarding of chairman Rod Petrie, chief executive Leeann Dempster and head of football operations George Craig.
“Things were out of my hands at Bolton,” he said. “I had to make a 50 percent cut on the wage bill and got little back. Even when we went in there, we were bottom of the league and kept them up but had to cut the squad. We had a transfer embargo and were on the brink of administration.
“I got to grips with the business side a lot. I dealt with [financial troubleshooter] Trevor Birch, who worked up here with Hearts, and got to know that side of things. I’m pretty sure I won’t need to deal with the same kind of stuff here because the club is in such good condition. Obviously we’re in the Championship and we need to negotiate that, but there’s huge potential here. The infrastructure is all in place and there’s a good core of players.”
Having managed at the top level of Scottish football and in England’s second tier, eyebrows were initially raised when Lennon indicated to Hibs that he would be keen to replace Alan Stubbs. Even Dempster herself was surprised when Lennon’s representative first made contact to say that he would be keen to talk. Lennon, however, is totally content with the decision he has made, even though his ultimate dream of managing in the English Premier League now looks to be on hold. “It just feels like a good fit,” he said. “It’s not something I’ve rushed into. I knew Alan was leaving and I thought there was a good opportunity here. It’s a big city club with a great stadium.
“I didn’t have any misgivings about coming back to Scotland, none at all. I’m looking forward to it. I had a great time up here for the most part of 15 years. I had a good time in England as well, regardless of the way things went at Bolton. But I look around and think, this is good. It’s going to be competitive. We are up there to be shot at. But this is home for me. I don’t need to move my family around. It’s a challenge I am looking forward to. The Scottish Championship won’t be a culture shock. I played in League Two and One in England, non-league sometimes, that won’t affect me at all. Been there and done that as a player, it won’t faze me as manager.
“Of course there is the thought about staying in England [after Bolton], but this is a big club. Stubbsy has gone to Rotherham but Hibs are a bigger club than Rotherham. Yes, it’s England and the Championship, where there is more money swilling around. But Hibs are the bigger club. I want to make this club big again.”
Although he will remain in green and white, his new posting represents Lennon’s first involvement with any Scottish club apart from Celtic. He insists there will be no divided loyalties if they find themselves locking horns. “My whole focus now is Hibs,” he said. “I love Celtic and always will but I’m now at Hibs and I’ll do all I can to win football games for Hibs whether that’s against Celtic, Rangers, Hearts or Brechin City. This is my job now and my whole focus is now on Hibernian.”
Although a calm, measured and articulate person away from the heat of battle, Lennon was previously renowned for having a fiery temperament on match-day. “You mellow as you get older, but that will to win never leaves you,” he said. “There will be times when I’ll lose my temper. You look back and think you were a bit of hothead coming in because you wanted to make a big impression. You sort of temper yourself a bit more.”