Big interview: Hibs' Leeann Dempster speaks out on Neil Lennon derby outburst
Neil Lennon had probably given little thought to the storm he was about to unleash as, in the wake of the defeat by Hearts which ended Hibs' hopes of taking second place in the Premiership table, he questioned his own future, his players' professionalism and whether enough ambition would be shown to move the club in the right direction.
The failure of the head coach to appear for his customary press conference ahead of Hibs’ final game of the season against Rangers a few days later only stoked the feeling that all was not well deep down inside Easter Road way despite the outward appearance reflecting that historic Scottish Cup win, the Championship title and a return to the top flight in which they’d pushed Aberdeen and Rangers all the way for that runners-up spot.
Crisis talks, summit meetings and airwaves awash with clamours for the board to back Lennon with “real” investment were the order of the day. A little more than 72 hours later, calm had been restored, the curtain coming down on the season with a sensational 5-5 draw with Rangers and Lennon professing that life was, after all, very agreeable on the east side of Edinburgh.
Throughout, chief executive Leeann Dempster remained unmoved –annoyed and frustrated, perhaps – by the reaction to what had been only the second league defeat of 2018, but equally aware that all the off-field noise in no way reflected the true state of affairs.
Yes, she admitted, there had been a meeting with Lennon the day after his astonishing outburst at Tynecastle, but no, they hadn’t been showdown talks between a manager and his employers at odds with each other.
Lennon has since admitted he was doing little more than “letting off steam” while conceding he maybe shouldn’t have said what he did but, insisted Dempster, while that moment won’t be forgotten by those who witnessed it first hand, there’s been no lingering fall-out.
“I think Neil has given his own explanation as to why he reacted in the way he did,” she said. “I think that’s a measure of Neil, it’s that absolute disappointment. I deny anyone who is involved in football not to feel emotional about it.
“Neil is no different to anyone else. He expressed it in a very emotional way, but he has explained that. We had a meeting the next day, it was nothing to do with any outburst or me being upset. It was because we work together and care about each other. I wanted to touch base and see where all our emotions were, to look back at a disappointing result but we also had a game coming towards us.
“It’s all been a bit sensationalised, summit meetings and so on. But it wasn’t like that at all. I have worked with Neil for two years and I think I know him quite well and when I met him on the Thursday he was clearly disappointed, we all were.
“There was never any major point of anxiety from me or him. It was his way of expressing the disappointment and then we went through, basically, a day or two and then emotions are lower and you are back focusing on the next match.”
Lennon’s failure to appear at that press conference was put down to illness and while Dempster accepted it played into the hands of the press, she added: “It was all a bit dramatic and we all love a conspiracy, but you have to remember he was quite ill in the couple of weeks leading up to that.
“He is far better expressing himself on his behalf than anyone else and he has done it very adequately.
“It was a disappointment of not taking it to the last game of the season having given ourselves such a good chance. But I have to re-iterate this point, our season is not deflated in any way because we did not finish third or second.”
Demspter was adamant any manager would want re-assurances in regard to what resources would be getting made available, wanting to know their ambition was aligned with the people they worked with while insisting Lennon didn’t have any dubiety as to Hibs’ desires.
She said: “As I have said, we are going to have the biggest football budget again this season that the club has ever had. That’s not me bumping my gums – it’s a fact.
“We were already planning on that, on building on the success we’ve had this season because we know you can’t be complacent at all.”
Nevertheless, listening to unwanted “advice” as to what should be done and what needed to be done to avert the crisis which had engulfed her club as events were debated on the radio as she drove home that Thursday evening riled Dempster to the point she had to restrain herself from calling in, reckoning: “I thought it wouldn’t be good for me.
“Do I get annoyed or frustrated? I was sat knowing the club has supported Neil and that he had clarified that regarding transfer budgets that were available in January and then you have individuals who, when they see and opportunity, come out of the woodwork to express their feelings, whatever they may be. We’ve had this before. Where is the magic cheque, the magic bank? It does not exist. It’s not about us being bean-counters or penny-pinchers.
“We run a very successful football club and this football club will continue to be successful, that’s our absolute determination and we are not going to jeopardise that just because someone gets himself on the radio or in the newspapers and tells us to get out the imaginary cheque book. Absolutely not.
“But what we sill do is support our football department, our manager, our staff, everyone in here, to support there ambitions which is to have a really successful club competing right at the top of the league as we ultimately did this year and making sure we make good decisions for the club, not just now but for the long term. If anyone thinks we are just going to make this imaginary investment, that’s the start of the slippery slope and we are not going to do it.”
Demspter insisted the Hibs’ board are determined to give Lennon all the backing they can as he seeks to revamp his squad over the coming weeks, saying: “We are preparing for eventualities for either major change across the player squad or minor change and, actually, the things we want to elect to do.
“Neil has said potential targets have already been identified. This is work that’s been going on for years, looking ahead to future windows. That’s the life cycle in football. I’ve been in football for ten years, people move when you don’t want them to, you feel reflective and quite unhappy because you don’t want it to happen.
“But then there’s maybe a player you want to move on and he doesn’t want to leave and there’s a big emotion in that. But that’s football, that’s how teams evolve.”