Amid the laughable furore which erupted following his pantomime villain antics at Ibrox on Saturday, Neil Lennon has largely been denied the praise that should have been coming his way following the latest step in his renaissance as a manager of genuine substance in Scottish football.
The 3-2 victory over Rangers – the landmark result of a 14-month reign at Hibs which hasn’t always been smooth – served to emphatically quell any lingering doubts about the Northern Irishman’s suitability to lead the Easter Road side on their return to the Premiership.
Since leaving Celtic in the wake of guiding them to a third consecutive league title in 2014, Lennon’s stock level has taken a dip. An ill-fated 17-month spell at Bolton Wanderers, in which he struggled amid crippling restraints, meant Lennon was entering what was widely viewed as a make-or-break phase of his career when he decided to drop down to Scotland’s second tier to replace Hibs’ revered Scottish Cup-winning manager Alan Stubbs in June last year.
Although the appointment of such a decorated modern Scottish football icon was almost unanimously welcomed among the Hibs support, there remained legitimate questions about whether or not he could flourish without the type of monetary advantage over rival clubs he enjoyed in his four years as Celtic manager.
Those concerns weren’t exactly dispelled in his first season at Easter Road as Hibs made heavier weather than many supporters had expected in securing promotion from a Scottish Championship bereft of any credible threat. A five-game winless run last autumn had the doubters out in force, while a run of just two wins in ten league games prior to clinching the title in mid-April again had sections of the support questioning the manager. Public rants about his players, notably after a draw at Raith Rovers in February and the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Aberdeen in April, allied to the infamous bust-up with Jim Duffy near the end of a goalless draw with Morton in March helped paint a picture – to the outside world, at least – of an exasperated manager who wasn’t particularly enjoying operating with a team unable to produce the level of consistency he craved and had taken as a given during his time at Celtic.
Lennon and Hibs didn’t always look a perfect fit in his first year, with some feeling he was too big a character for the job. For the Northern Irishman, however, that rocky year in the Championship was effectively a means to an end. Getting out of it and back into a position where he could once more make his presence felt at Scottish football’s top end was the be all and end all; how he achieved it, in the grand scheme, didn’t really matter. Ultimately he did what he was hired to do, and also presided over a memorable away win over Brondby in the Europa League and a spirited defence of the Scottish Cup. Big decisions like dropping top scorer Jason Cummings, relying heavily on veteran target man Grant Holt and utilising a more direct style were vindicated.
Having achieved his key objective of promotion, however, a period of temporary deflation returned to Hibs’ support shortly after the likes of Cummings, James Keatings, Holt and Fraser Fyvie had moved on and Hibs had missed out on a couple of targets like Kyle Lafferty and Luke Berry. As recently as early last month, Lennon’s squad was looking short of the required quality, to the point where some supporters were speculating that the manager might be so concerned by the state of play that he would be ready to quit.
Over the past month, however, the mood has improved markedly, with four full internationalists recruited in the shape of Steven Whittaker, Anthony Stokes, Vykintas Slivka and Deivydas Matulevicius. Three of them started in the win over Rangers on Saturday as Hibs maintained their sure-footed start to a season which is now promising a great deal. It speaks volumes about Lennon’s recruitment this summer that his least-heralded and most-maligned signing – Simon Murray – has turned out to be the star man of the fledgling Scottish football season thus far.
Lennon knows what is required to prosper in Scotland’s top flight. Among his signings, there is a good mix of experience, international pedigree, energy, creativity, physicality and familiarity with both the club and the league. Like Aberdeen, Hibs have lost some key men over the summer and still managed to end up starting the current campaign in a seemingly stronger state, which is testament to the manager’s ability to attract players of repute.
In his quest to upgrade, Lennon has also been careful not to dent the momentum or dilute the spirit that has been building in the Hibs squad over the last few years, with no less than ten players who featured prominently under Stubbs two seasons ago still heavily involved. Indeed, six of the Scottish Cup-winning team started at Ibrox on Saturday.
On paper, Lennon has assembled a balanced squad which looks – in terms of quality and suitability for the Scottish Premiership – the equal of anything outwith Celtic. In leading his steadily-evolving team to their deserved victory away to Rangers – the pre-season favourites for second place – he has punctured any air of optimism which may have been building inside Ibrox, while simultaneously adding to the positive vibe around his own club.
Upon scanning their upcoming fixtures, it doesn’t appear beyond possibility that Hibs could win each of their next six matches in the league and Betfred Cup before Lennon takes his team to Celtic Park on the last day of September. Even that match, against Brendan Rodgers’ domestic Invincibles, doesn’t look insurmountable for a team coursing with confidence and led by a man on a mission to reassert himself as one of the big dogs of Scottish football.