NEIL Lennon and Paulo Sergio have crossed swords before, in Boston in July 2010 during a pre-season friendly between Celtic and Sporting Lisbon. Lennon’s side emerged victorious on penalties but only after a touchline altercation which Sergio well remembers.
“We didn’t agree about refereeing decisions, but it was normal at the end of the game. We shook hands. We just didn’t agree with what the referee was doing,” smiled the Hearts manager as he contemplated Lennon’s arrival at Tynecastle tomorrow.
Since facing one another in America, Sergio has defected to Scotland hoping to challenge the Old Firm duopoly with Hearts. Lennon remains Celtic manager and will be the centre of attention tomorrow after being attacked by a supporter on his last visit to Gorgie.
Sergio is keen for that incident to be forgotten and wishes his counterpart well. “Respect” is a word he has employed frequently since replacing Jim Jefferies and it he is determined Lennon should be shown plenty of it. “Listen, I’m not an actor. I don’t need to show the people that I respect Neil,” he said. “It’s not a theatrical thing. I respect all the people and I respect Neil. I don’t need to shake his hand just to make a nice picture. I respect him a lot, and all the other managers.
“It wasn’t a nice thing, what happened to him last time he was at Tynecastle. It’s been solved in the right way so let’s talk about football.
“It is the kind of thing that shouldn’t happen in football. I don’t want Neil to come here and be thinking about that. It was an isolated thing. Hearts supporters all need to receive Celtic supporters well and talk about football. It’s not a war.”
Maybe not, but Hearts-Celtic matches can descend into one despite the best efforts of those involved. Lennon is confident security will not be an issue this time. “I’m sure measures will be in place and it will probably be the safest place for me to be,” said the Celtic manager.
“It was an embarrassment for a lot of people and I don’t want to go through that again. I am basically more concerned about the way we play and getting the three points.” Celtic are smarting from losing a late, and hotly disputed, equaliser in Thursday night’s Europa League tie against Udinese. For Hearts, two successive away defeats to Ayr United and St Johnstone are still sore points.
“It’s a disappointing result for them,” said Sergio on Celtic’s European misfortune.
“It’s always hard when you are winning then lose two points in the last minutes of the game. But this is a different game. I believe there will be a strong Celtic team with quality players.
“Neil has nothing to prove to anybody. He shows that he’s a good leader and knows how to do his job. I respect him a lot.
“It was a poor performance for us at St Johnstone. We lacked aggression in the last 30 metres in attack. We controlled the game, we had the ball, but we weren’t aggressive in attack, we didn’t take good decisions, and we made two huge mistakes which gave goals to our opponents. I have to give credit to St Johnstone, but I think it was a bad performance from us.
“I saw the team growing up every weekend. Last ten or 15 days was one step forward and two back, so I’m not liking that. But I hope for a different performance in the next game and a different attitude and desire. We didn’t win at St Johnstone because their players desired to win the game more. They didn’t play better, but they desired more to win the game.”
Hearts’ attempted recovery tomorrow will be watched by their majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov, who will meet with Sergio during his brief visit to Scotland. Prospective transfers, however, are not on the agenda for discussion. It will be January before the manager gets the opportunity to inject any of his own flavour to the squad.
“He (Romanov) is coming to the game,” said Sergio. “The market is closed and I don’t believe there is an unemployed player out there who can serve us. Somebody who is unemployed right now has no rhythm and I’m not looking for that at the moment. If we have to do something in January, we will do it.”