Neil Lennon’s job satisfaction levels could hardly be higher as he reflects on his fruitful Hibs tenure thus far.
Since replacing Alan Stubbs as manager just short of 18 months ago, the 46-year-old has led the Easter Road side from the Championship to within five points of the top of the Premiership, a position he became accustomed to during distinguished times as both player and manager at Celtic. Relatively recent memories of firefighting at Bolton Wanderers ensure Lennon, who signed a contract extension in the summer, is able to fully appreciate the level of contentment he has found at Hibs, a club that would not initially have fitted with his plans when he chose to leave Celtic in order to progress his career as a manager in 2014.
“Sometimes you’re always looking for the next big move but the most important thing is that you’re happy in your work,” said Lennon in an interview with the Evening News. “As a manager you just want to work in a good environment. We’ve got a good structure here and a good facility, which is a big help. We’ve got a really good bunch of players in terms of quality and character, and they’re good to work with. I’ve got good people around me. I know people are starting to talk about me in relation to other jobs but I’m not looking anywhere else. I’m really focused. I signed a new contract because I’m happy here and want to progress the club.”
In restoring Hibs to the upper echelons of Scottish football so swiftly, Lennon has gone a long way to banishing any doubts about his managerial substance stemming from that chastening 17-month spell in charge of Bolton. The structure and stability at Easter Road is a far cry from the chaos he was thrust into the heart of in Lancashire. “From a personal point of view, I didn’t feel I needed reassurance that I was a good manager, but I think I probably needed to do well here in terms of the public perception of me as a manager,” he said. “Some people will have seen my results at Bolton and said ‘he’s been found out’ but it was just an impossible job. We did as well as we possibly could but there was no real leadership after the chairman fell seriously ill and I was having to deal with stuff that was nothing to do with football.
“This club is the total opposite to Bolton. Here, I can concentrate on the important stuff, which is the players and getting the team right. I feel refreshed here. Bolton was a one-off. There aren’t many clubs in the position Bolton were in. It was an experience I was able to learn from, but this club has certainly given me rejuvenation. I’m happy and satisfied, and I think that’s all you can ask for as a football manager.”
As someone who felt the intensity of representing Celtic for more than a decade, Lennon insists he still feels more than enough heat in his current guise as Hibs manager to keep himself motivated. “No matter where you go, any manager will tell you they are their own worst critic,” he said. “We all set ourselves targets. Allied to that, you’re analysed day in, day out, whether it’s your interviews, your body language, your persona. Ultimately everyone looks at your results as well. It’s certainly not as intense as life was in Glasgow, but there’s still an intensity and a responsibility in terms of managing a big city club and trying to get them challenging consistently, and I like that. That comes from being at a big club like Celtic, and you want to pass that on to the players in any way you can.”
Having removed himself from the renowned “Glasgow goldfish bowl”, Lennon is revelling in being able to remain a prominent member of the Scottish football scene without having his every move followed by someone who wants to acclaim or abuse him, depending on the team they support. Living in East Lothian has had a becalming effect on his off-field existence. “I’ve got a lot more freedom through here,” he said. “That took a bit of getting used to, in terms of not having so many people coming up to say ‘hello’ or talk about the team or whatever. There’s certainly a far more relaxed atmosphere through here - it’s not as intense. There’s a good rivalry with Hearts but it’s a lot more sociable, I suppose. There’s a lot more humour to it - it’s not got the same darkness or sinister aspect that the Old Firm has.”
As a man who, as evidenced by his touchline demeanour on a matchday, puts his heart and soul into ensuring his football team prosper, Lennon is aware of the need to ensure his dedication to his job doesn’t become all-consuming. More than seven years into his managerial career, he feels he is succeeding in finding a healthy balance between work and downtime. “Getting the balance comes with experience,” said Lennon. “You do live and breathe the game but there are times you have to get away or switch off. If things are going well, it’s fine. If things aren’t going well, it can encompass you, so you can’t let that happen because you have to have a work/life balance. I’m a lot better at doing that now than when I first came into management. Sometimes I’ll answer the phone on a day off and sometimes I’ll just leave the phone and say ‘I’ll deal with that tomorrow’ and try not to be so hard on myself in terms of feeling guilty about not taking a call. If it’s really important, you have to deal with things but I try not to stress myself too much about things, especially the things I can’t control.”
The simple things in life keep the Hibs manager ticking over in his spare time. “I just go home, spend time with the family, take the dog a walk, catch up with people,” said Lennon. “I play a bit of golf if I can when the weather’s good; this is a great area for it. The courses down North Berwick way are stunning. It’s a part of the world I wasn’t familiar with when I first came here but I’m really enjoying living here. I like living near Edinburgh. The city’s great. I’m in and out of the city but I don’t spend too much time there. I go out for a meal in places like Morningside, Portobello or Colinton. I try to vary it as much as I can.”
Lennon’s off-field contentment is reflected by the serene progress of his team of late, with a four-game winning streak prior to the international break lifting Hibs to third in the Premiership. “I think we’re exceeding my own expectations at the minute,” he said. “It’s still early in the season but we’ve got ourselves playing consistently well and in a good position in the league. We’ve dominated a lot of games. Early in the season we weren’t getting the results we felt we deserved but now we are. Our game management has improved and the quality of the football has been very good - there’s good pace in the team as well. It’s too early to think about increasing our expectations though because there could be so many things hiding round the corner like injuries, suspensions and a couple of defeats that could change the whole landscape. We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Lennon’s only notable cause for regret over the past 18 months has been an inability to eke out victory in either the Scottish Cup semi-final against Aberdeen in April or last month’s Betfred Cup semi-final against Celtic. Hibs were undermined by slow starts in both matches. “The only disappointments I’ve had here are the two cup semi-finals, but even then we were playing the two best teams in the country,” he said. “The Aberdeen game was the one that really got away. We looked like the team that were going to win it and then lost to a deflection. Those were the two main disappointments but the rest of it has been excellent. I’ve loved it.”