A little after 6.30pm, Neil Lennon first emerged on to the Tynecastle turf with his Celtic players. There was barely a soul in the stadium at that point, bar stewards and media, and the former Hibs manager was in jovial fettle as he enjoyed a laugh with captain Scott Brown.
This lighthearted scene was all a far cry from his last moments in this same part of Edinburgh, four months earlier, when he was felled by a coin thrown from the main stand in his previous guise as Hibs manager on a shameful Halloween night.
Lennon, who has grown accustomed to being the Hearts fans’ pantomime villain, would have been well prepared for inevitable jeers when the stadium filled up. After nipping back inside with his players, he remained in the dressing-room area for the duration of the warm-ups, seemingly saving his big entrance until everyone was in their seat ready to welcome him from the mouth of the tunnel in the Wheatfield Stand.
After coming out behind the players, the Northern Irishman enjoyed his trudge across the pitch to the technical area. While Hearts fans, predictably, booed loudly, he was simultaneously given a rapturous reception from the travelling support, a section of whom held up banners denouncing the departed Brendan Rodgers. “You traded immortality for mediocrity. Never a Celt always a fraud.”
Rodgers is already yesterday’s man in the eyes of the Celtic support, with Lennon now once again their darling less than three months after he inflicted a rare defeat on his fellow Northern Irishman at Easter Road when in charge of Hibs. After shaking hands with Craig Levein in the Hearts technical area, Lennon applauded the Celtic fans who were chanting his name.
Within moments of the game kicking off, he was pacing his technical area, cajoling his players. The Hearts support sporadically taunted him with a less-than-complimentary song, but generally the manager kept his cool. Until, that is, his side took the lead through James Forrest, and he turned to celebrate gleefully with the rest of his backroom staff, punching the air in delight.
When ten-man Hearts drew level early in the second half, Lennon must have feared a sixth-consecutive winless trip to Tynecastle after failing to taste victory here while in charge of Hibs. He threw on big-hitting forwards Odsonne Edouard and Timo Weah, and was rewarded with a stoppage-time winner. Lennon’s euphoria – not to mention his relief – was clear to see as he went berserk in his technical area. When the full-time whistle sounded moments later, Lennon hugged assistant John Kennedy and then marched triumphantly towards the away support, cupping his ears and lapping up the adulation before heading up the tunnel. After being seconds away from an underwhelming start, Lennon and his team left one of their most troublesome venues celebrating arguably their most significant victory of the season yet.