Bolton battles have '˜made Lennon a better manager'
Neil Lennon, perhaps more than most, is entitled to take his time weighing up the chance to become Hibs' new head coach. After all, he is still recovering from having his fingers badly burned in his previous role as Bolton Wanderers manager-turned-firefighter.
When he took the reins at the Lancashire club in October 2014, it was supposed to be the Northern Irishman’s big chance to prove he could cut it in England after a successful four-year spell in charge of Celtic. Last summer, Lennon, then midway through his 17-month Bolton tenure, was in a two-horse race with Claudio Ranieri to become manager of Leicester City. Now he finds himself staring at the prospect of having to rebuild his career in the Scottish Championship.
Lennon has been offered the chance to take over at Easter Road, and is, understandably, taking time to decide whether it is the right move for him after a chastening experience down south came to an end three months ago.
“He was sold a lot of lies when he got the job at Bolton,” said Marc Iles, the Wanderers correspondent for the Bolton News.
“It wasn’t the job he signed up to. When things aren’t going well, you can always nitpick at what a manager could be doing better and things like that, but, unquestionably in my mind, the lack of success he had at Bolton was not down to managerial deficiencies, it was down to what was going on off the pitch. It was a nigh-on impossible job.”
Although Bolton languished bottom of the Championship when he replaced Dougie Freedman the autumn before last, Lennon wasn’t aware of just how grave the club’s predicament would become and thought he would eventually have a chance to lead them back up to the Premier League. After winning just one of their 11 league matches prior to his arrival, the former Celtic boss sparked an immediate upturn as he won eight of his first 15 league matches. In just four months, he took them from 24th place to 13th, before eventually settling in 18th after an underwhelming finale.
“The players he inherited were better than their league position suggested, and were always likely to pick up with the bit of magic dust that a new manager like Lenny would bring,” said Iles. “Some people had seen Freedman as a sterile and detached manager, and he had been very unpopular, so when Lenny came in, the first thing he did was grab hold of the Zeitgeist, if you like. He made himself seem like the backbone of the club. He was out there in the town, beating the drum and saying all the right things.
“He genuinely embraced the whole insular town of Bolton. He got in with the history of the place. Some fans felt the club had lost its community spirit since it fell out of the Premier League, but Lenny was very keen to get out there and be visible in the town. I remember a young lad had written to the club and asked if he could become the manager. Lenny got wind of this and went out to meet him at his school and play football with the boy’s team. He really related to the people. He lived in the town, ate in the restaurants, drank in the local pubs and bought his papers at the local newsagents. People no doubt pestered his ear the whole time he was here, but I think he quite liked all that.
“It went very well at the start and results picked up very quickly. He simplified everything. He played very straightforward football, whereas before people had accused Freedman of over-complicating things. When he brought in people like Eidur Gudjohnsen and Emile Heskey, albeit at the end of their careers, there was a feeling he was about to assemble something pretty special. Bolton drew at Anfield in the FA Cup and Lenny was being linked with clubs like Aston Villa at that point. But then they went out to a very late goal in the replay against Liverpool and injuries started to take hold and a bit of the early sparkle was lost.”
Despite this, Lennon found himself in contention to take over at Leicester City last summer. Aware that he wouldn’t be given the financial backing he had been promised to rebuild at Bolton, he saw a return to the Midlands club, where he’d made his name as a player, as the ideal chance to flourish as a manager. In the end, Lennon was pipped for the job by Ranieri, who would go on to lead the Foxes to a historic Premier League title.
“At the height of the Leicester link, Bolton were out in Austria at a training camp,” recalls Iles. “It was up in the hills in Graz, and I went over to see Lenny on the first day we arrived. It was very rare for him not to come over and say ‘hi, how you doing?’ He wasn’t up for talking at all, which was very unusual for him.
“Phil Gartside, the late Bolton chairman, was on the phone to me on an almost hourly basis with what the latest was with Lenny and Leicester. Eventually, he phoned me and said ‘don’t worry, Ranieri’s got the job, so you can speak to Lenny again’. I then spoke to him about it after the next friendly but he never really went into the Leicester stuff. I think he was disappointed because he genuinely loves that club and I think he thought he had a real chance of getting the job. I remember asking him what he thought about Ranieri getting the job and he just shot me a glance that told you everything. If Lenny had gone last summer, he’d have been viewed as huge loss to Bolton. Things could have turned out very different for him if he’d got that job.”
Lennon’s Bolton reign duly unravelled in spectacular fashion. He lost some key men, wasn’t given the required finance to replace them and then, after a dismal start to the season, had to deal with late payment of player wages and a transfer embargo which stopped him bolstering his squad at a critical point in January. The club was battling for its very existence, but, in the absence of a figurehead following Gartside’s death in February, Lennon kept trying to lead from the front. His already formidable task wasn’t made any easier by persistent speculation that impending new owners, among them former Bolton player Dean Holdsworth, were planning to replace him with Phil Brown. With no boardroom support, he would regularly turn to press men to enquire about how safe his job was before eventually parting company with the club in March, after just one game under the new regime.
“As a journalist, Lenny was magic to deal with, absolutely fantastic,” said Iles.
“I’ve got a lot of time for him. He was very good on a personal level and always happy to talk to us and try and make sense of what was a ridiculous situation at Bolton. He’s got balls of steel. He stood up and answered questions that no manager should ever have to answer on behalf of the club. The chairman sadly passed away earlier this season year, so there was no figurehead willing to take on responsibility. Neil stepped into that breach very well and was being asked questions that were for a chief exec or a chairman. A lot of fans gave him credit for fronting up. But towards the end, he was a haunted man and it was only going to end one way. He took a bit of a hit from the fans towards the end and it all got a bit distasteful.”
Lennon departed with Bolton, as he had found them, bottom of the league, and they were duly relegated under caretaker Jimmy Phillips. Iles believes the state the former Northern Ireland internationalist left his local club in is not a true reflection of his managerial ability and believes that Hibs will benefit from having a man determined to prove a point if he decides this week to take the reins from Alan Stubbs.
“At a different club, with more secure finances, I think he would definitely have done a good job,” said the journalist. “You never get time in football, but even if he’d stayed on at Bolton for next season and been able to start afresh in League One next season, I would have backed him to do well.
“He’ll have learnt a lot from his time at Bolton – you couldn’t fail to learn from that experience. He’ll be a lot more savvy about the business side of things than he ever would have known from his time at Celtic. At Bolton he was involved in the club from top to bottom, he had his nose in everything. I think that will make him a much better manager overall.”