Comment: Neil Lennon’s desire to beat odds proved his downfall
In light of his remarkable post-match comments at Tynecastle last May, it was a surprise that Neil Lennon actually began this season as Hibs manager.
Although his first two years at the club had been fruitful and relatively harmonious – a Championship title followed by a fourth-place finish in the Premiership – the Northern Irishman appeared to be paving the way for his departure when, after a 2-1 defeat by Hearts cost his side the chance of second place, he eviscerated a group of players who had largely shone for him and simultaneously questioned the ambition of his superiors, with whom he seemed to be on the same wavelength until that landscape-altering night in Gorgie.
Perhaps it was the uplifting nature of the season-ending 5-5 draw with Rangers in the Leith sunshine a few days later that helped everything calm down again, but, after a few weeks of uncertainty over the close-season, Lennon was back to begin the the big rebuild after losing some key men, most notably John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch, a player he had ironically deemed surplus to requirement the previous summer.
Despite the lingering sense over the past nine months that a parting of ways seemed to be only a matter of time away, nobody at Hibs wanted it to end like this, with the club losing one of its most high-profile, popular and passionate managers in the most ugly, acrimonious manner possible. Lennon could have walked away as a hero last summer, as predecessor Alan Stubbs did after winning the Scottish Cup two years previously. He could have been headhunted by a bigger club after kicking off his third season in style, proving he could overcome the loss of his main men. Or he could even have left with his dignity intact at any point, acknowledging that the task of replacing the seemingly irreplaceable in the Hibs midfield had simply proved beyond him on the Easter Road budget.
Lennon is a fighter, though. Although he had hinted at leaving last May, the warrior inside him was determined to find a way of keeping Hibs competitive with the likes of Rangers, Aberdeen and resurgent Hearts. Ultimately his frustration at being unable to achieve what he had hoped to in Edinburgh has been his downfall. Frustration at not being able to replace McGinn, McGeouch et al with established big hitters – not that there were many obvious, realistically-attainable candidates to fill those midfield voids – and exasperation at the inconsistency and perceived limitations of the players left at his disposal has clearly manifested itself in the fateful ructions of East Mains on Friday.
While he wasn’t helped by a wretched run of injuries this season, Lennon couldn’t have envisaged ending his Hibs tenure with the team struggling in the bottom six, outplayed and well beaten by a ninth-placed Motherwell side. In his efforts to draw a positive response from last Wednesday’s limp display at Fir Park, he appears to have overstepped the mark in Friday’s video analysis gathering at the training centre, although exact details – and context – remain sketchy on the basis that nobody present is able to say too much about what happened due to the delicate nature of the situation.
That Florian Kamberi was at the centre of the blow-up comes as little surprise to anyone who has been following Hibs closely over the past couple of months. Ever since being substituted against St Mirren in December, and subsequently criticised by assistant manager Garry Parker, the Swiss striker appears to have become something of a scapegoat for the coaching staff. Harshly, it must be said. Kamberi hasn’t hit the heights of last season, when he made a sensational impact after arriving on loan from Grasshoppers Zurich. In defence of the Swiss, he has largely been operating without Scott Allan, McGeouch, McGinn and Jamie Maclaren this term, the four players who were arguably most crucial to his superb form last season. The regular supply from midfield hasn’t been there this season while he hasn’t had a regular partner to play alongside, with Maclaren injured for much of the season and then going off on international duty shortly after returning to the side. Indeed, Maclaren is understood to have had his own issues with Lennon recently, raising the possibility that he could cut short his loan from German club Darmstadt this month.
When Lennon had another public nibble at his “strikers” in his post-match media briefing on Wednesday, it was clear Kamberi was again the target of his ire since he was only striker to start the match and was only joined in attack by Oli Shaw in the last ten minutes. To this observer, Kamberi was the least of Hibs’ problems on Wednesday. He barely got a sniff, largely because he was working off scraps, but he seemed hungry enough to show for his team-mates and get involved in the play. Given Hibs pushed the boat out to get Kamberi last summer, Lennon clearly expected more from his star striker. It is worth remembering, however, that until arriving at Easter Road just a year ago, Kamberi, still only 23, had never previously been cast as the main striker of a top-flight team. He is not a proven top-level operator and was bound to have a drop-off at some point, particularly given the previously mentioned mitigating circumstances. Kamberi showed to an extent that he had the mentality to respond positively to the negative comments of his bosses by producing impressive performances at home to Celtic and away to Rangers last month, but, not surprisingly, the regular flow of withering comments about his work, at a time when almost every other Hibs player has been struggling for form, eventually caused Kamberi to snap.
Lennon, a former captain and manager of Celtic, has spent the bulk of his football career operating in an environment where personal criticism can be used as a motivational tool. Indeed, anyone who watched the compelling Netflix documentary Sunderland Til I Die will have seen Aidan McGeady, a former colleague of Lennon’s who grew up at at Celtic, lamenting the fact that nobody in the Sunderland dressing-room, including manager Chris Coleman, seemed to be showing the required level of anger and concern as the team slid towards England’s third tier last season. McGeady appeared to be pining for a Lennon-type figurehead to try and spark a response.
When it gets personal and persistent, however, there is a danger of it becoming a vendetta. Just as Lennon is entitled to crack the whip if he sees fit, a player is entitled to hit back if they feel they are being unfairly maligned, particularly in public where opinions can be easily influenced by the words of high-profile characters like Lennon.
For all that the Kamberi situation seems to have taken an unsavoury turn and become the straw that broke the camel’s back, working under Lennon hasn’t been a relentless slog for every Hibs player over the past two-and-a-half years. They wouldn’t have enjoyed such success for the majority of his reign if that had been the case. Former Hibs striker Jason Cummings, for instance, said that Lennon was the perfect manager for him because his constant cajoling kept him focused. The high demands were never an issue with the players, all of whom wanted to better themselves. But throwaway slurs, such as branding the team “amateurs” in the previously-mentioned Tynecastle outburst, were never going to be well received. The general consensus among the Hibs squad was that when Lennon was in good fettle, he was a great manager to work under but when things were bad, it could be pretty grim, particularly this season.
While the hostility of battle and a ferocious will-to-win often brought out the worst in Lennon, it must be acknowledged that away from competition, he is an engaging, intelligent and personable character. Indeed, one prominent first-team member remarked privately last year that Lennon was the best man-manager he had worked under and helped him immeasurably on a human level to deal with a personal issue. I experienced Lennon’s compassionate side first-hand around 14 months ago when he was the first person I interviewed following a close family bereavement.
From a journalist’s perspective, it has been brilliant having him in Edinburgh. Media gatherings were rarely bland, with Lennon good value for insight and opinion on a broad range of subjects. Refreshingly, he was always honest, even if speaking his mind occasionally got him into trouble, as appears to have been the case behind closed doors on Friday. If Hibs felt the manager crossed a line, they had to act accordingly. There have been enough signs in recent months to suggest that an end point was coming for Lennon and Hibs, but there will be regret on all sides that a largely exhilarating alliance has culminated in implosion.