Efe Ambrose: I'm at HIbs because I owe Neil Lennon a lot
The good times Efe Ambrose enjoyed under Neil Lennon at Celtic helped persuade him to rejoin his old boss at Easter Road.
In a memorable first season in Scotland Ambrose helped take the Hoops to the last 16 of the Champions League with, on the way, a stunning win over Barcelona, a Scottish Cup triumph over, whisper it... Hibs, and victory in the Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria.
It’s fair to say that since then the trajectory of the 28-year-old’s career has headed in a different direction, a series of high profile mistakes culminating in a comical own goal in an International Champions League series match against Barca in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium all but signalling an end to his time in Glasgow.
Ambrose was to make just two appearances for new Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, Champions League qualifying matches against Astana of Kazakhstan his final games, the defender not even featuring in a matchday squad since last summer.
He looked destined to spend the rest of the season on the outside looking in when a proposed loan move to English Championship strugglers Blackburn Rovers fell through, the Ewood Park club’s new manager Tony Mowbray adamant he couldn’t afford to wait weeks for a work permit to be approved.
But Lennon, facing a defensive crisis as Liam Fontaine joined a casualty list which already included fellow centre backs Paul Hanlon, moved swiftly, snapping up Ambrose on an emergency loan, a move which has delighted the Celtic outcast.
He said: “I was happy to come back to Celtic because they welcomed me back, it felt like I was coming home.
“But I was happy that Hibs and Neil Lennon called on me. He’d brought me to Scotland and the first season with him was brilliant, we had a great time. In football you never forget the good times and that’s why I am here today.
“He knows me better than anyone, how to get the best out of me and I am here to do my best to help the team to get to the Premiership, that’s the most important thing.”
Ambrose, however, got off to an inauspicious start, his debut for the Capital club ending in a shock 2-0 defeat by the Championship’s basement side St Mirren, a result which will have given Hibs’ title rivals, most notably Dundee United whom they meet next at Tannadice, renewed hope of wiping out that seven points that currently separates them.
“It was a disappointing start,” he admitted, “but it’s not the end, it’s the beginning and we have to look ahead. We know the challenge is there so we need to step up and work harder.
“I can play my part. I only met the guys the day before the game and after this game we’ll get to know each other better. We will move on. As the gaffer said, this one is gone, we have to put it behind us and focus on the next game which is the cup quarter-final [against Ayr United tomorrow].
“We will move on. Hibs are a good club with good players, I’ve seen that from playing against them. They are a traditional club like Celtic with a big history.
“I know Ofir Marciano, I played with him at Ashdod [in Israel] for two years and I know a few of the players after playing against them. They have qualities, but for me it’s not just quality we need, we need a team spirit too.
“We’ve got a few injuries, but once the players come back we have a solid team.
“For me to be here is a massive opportunity and it is a chance to get myself back into the limelight again.
“Brendan Rodgers told me before I left ‘you need games’. And that’s why I am here. But it is not just to get game time, for me it is to improve the team too and help it stay on top.
“Last season was painful for Hibs. I watched them lose the play-off but they won the cup. Now I think this is the right time for them to come back among the best teams.
“The gaffer has said it can’t happen again [missing promotion]. It starts now. We need to step up, we need to go back and work on what went wrong on the training pitch and work hard.
“There’s no good saying we are going to do this or do that, we have to do our talking on the pitch. That’s the best way to get it done.”
For someone who has been roundly belittled for his on-field mistakes – wrongly in the opinion of Lennon – Ambrose remains totally upbeat and bears no ill-feeling towards Rodgers even if the Celtic boss has no place for him in his plans.
In fact, he described the former Liverpool and Swansea City manager as a “genius”, pointing to the transformation he has wrought in the east end of Glasgow, one which has left Celtic needing just seven more points to clinch a sixth consecutive title, the possibility of doing so being the first weekend in April when they face Hearts at Tynecastle.
Asked why he used such a generous description, Ambrose said: “He’s been fantastic, he’s helped me a lot. I haven’t played a lot but I have been in there working hard every day hoping I would get a chance but as we know football is always ups and downs.
“He’s a genius because he knows the game, he knows football. See what he has done at Celtic. I just have to say thanks to him, every time I see him or work with him I learn something.
“I never get angry. I was born happy. I never doubted myself, I hoped I would come back and play better than I have.”
Ambrose admitted it’s tough living under the glare of the spotlight, dealing with harsh criticism and revealing that mistake in Dublin was “a turning point” for him.
But he insisted: “That’s football. I am a defender. I tried to stop it but I slipped and the ball bounced off my shin. It can happen to anyone in football.
“You can never predict what is going to happen in football. After that day I was sad about the reaction, but I was just trying to do my job – to defend. I wasn’t trying to kick the ball in the net. I was just trying to defend, that’s my job.
“Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. But when that happens, that’s when you need the people’s support. I didn’t get it that day.
“But that’s life. When the team is doing well no-one picks on anyone. When the team are doing badly they start picking. Since Celtic have been winning, no-one has been playing badly, everyone has been good.
“But when they were not doing well that’s when the fans started to pick on players. I never regretted anything. I always tried my best, I always stood up and kept fighting.
“Football is like this, there has been criticism but I’ve never allowed it to pull me down in any way. I just come back stronger.“