Efe Ambrose has seen Hibs boss Neil Lennon lose his rag many times, but he still remembers with a shudder when he was the sole target of his manager’s wrath.
One poor pass was all it took for Lennon to turn his rage on the Nigerian defender, his mistake leading to a red card for Celtic team-mate Virgil Van Dijk as the Hoops lost their first and only league game that season. “It was scary,” admitted Ambrose. “It was one bad pass early on against Aberdeen at Pittodrie and ended with Virgil being sent off. We ended up 2-0 down at half-time and, although we got a goal back we still lost.
“The manager was so angry with me. It was the first time he’d had a go at me, but he’s done that many times.”
A below-par performance against Dumbarton last weekend provoked a similar outburst from Lennon, the Easter Road head coach revealing that if his players’ efforts hadn’t seen them break into a sweat then they certainly did so by the time he’d finished castigating them at half-time.
But, while it may be somewhat uncomfortable to be on the receiving end, Ambrose is convinced it’s that refusal to countenance even the slightest drop in standards that will help drive Hibs to the Championship title.
And Ambrose insisted he had no problem with Lennon venting his anger when he felt the need, saying: “If you are not doing well he will come for you. But he only wants the best for you, for you to become a better player.
“When it’s said it’s forgotten, you know you have to do much better, that you have to work on your game and make sure it doesn’t happen again. He’s a tough guy but it makes you strong mentally.
“At the same time, though, if you do well he will give you the praise, the credit you deserve.
“His desire is to win every game and I can see his personality hasn’t changed since we were at Celtic together. If you play badly he lets you know. You can’t be a winning player if you don’t have that mentality and, if you don’t have that, then he doesn’t want you.”
Lennon’s exasperation at watching his players produce outstanding performances against Hearts in the Scottish Cup and then at Tannadice when they all but ended Dundee United’s own Championship title hopes only to stumble against the likes of Ayr United, Dunfermline and now Dumbarton at home has been all too evident in recent weeks.
But Ambrose, on loan until the end of the season, has no doubts Lennon’s own experiences of winning titles and trophies both as a player and manager will come to the fore over the next few weeks as the title race goes down to the wire.
The 28-year-old said: “He’s not happy but, at the same time, he knows the game. He knows what we need to do and we won’t let this opportunity pass.
“He’s been in this position so often before, both as a player and a manager and he knows how to manage a team at this stage of the season. To work with him is a privilege and he’ll have us working hard at the training ground every day because that’s where the preparation is done to win the games.
“You have to deal with the weather, the condition of the pitches, how the opposition are going to set up, he knows all these things.
“We are in a great position but, at the same time, it is difficult because every team wants to beat you. Every game we play between now and the end of the season will be the same but I believe the boys realise that playing every one of them as if it was a cup final is what is needed to get us back to the Premiership and they are ready to do that.
“The title isn’t yet over so we have to focus, train hard and make sure we are ready for the next game.”
The next game comes on Saturday at home to Falkirk, a fixture which is quickly followed by a visit from Morton, the two teams who are now Hibs’ closest rivals with Dundee United having rapidly lost touch with the top of the table.
However, insisted Ambrose: “People will be saying if we win these two then the league will be over. But we don’t think that way. Falkirk is the most important game because it is the next one, only after that can we begin to look forward to Morton.”
Seven points separate Hibs from the Bairns and Morton, Falkirk having played a game more and Jim Duffy’s side a match fewer after the Cappielow club came out on top as the two went head-to-head at the weekend, that result, claimed Ambrose, making the draw he and his team-mates had earned earlier in the day a more positive outcome than was initially thought.
He said: “We weren’t good in the first half against Dumbarton and were a goal behind. But we came back to equalise only to lose another goal and then miss a penalty.
“But the mentality of the squad shone through as we put all of that behind us to equalise again by going right to the final whistle and, at the end of the day, that sort of point can win you the league.”
While his stay at Easter Road may be temporary, Ambrose insisted he is determined to play his part in helping steer Hibs back to the top flight, revealing the presence of Lennon had helped convince him to swap Celtic Park – where he had completely fallen out of new manager Brendan Rodgers’ plans – for Championship football.
He said: “Everyone wants to play in the Premiership but I’ve watched the Championship these last two years and I’ve seen how difficult a league it is.
“But for me football is the same wherever you play, it doesn’t matter who you are playing – if you are not prepared you can be beaten by anyone.
“I’m here to do my best, to give all I can and at the same time help everyone here achieve the same goal, to get this big club back into the Premiership.
“I know it’s a big club having played against Hibs for Celtic and by my reckoning they are one of the best four in Scotland.
“It was great when the gaffer called me and asked if I wanted to come here. Hopefully my experience can help, but it’s not about Efe Ambrose, it’s a collective thing, something we have to do together. It is difficult to win any league but the boys have been in this one for two years now and they are desperate to win the title and promotion.
“You can also see what it means to the fans. To be getting average home gates of more than 15,000 when you’d think a third season in the Championship would see crowds falling is fantastic.
“I’ve been really happy with the welcome I’ve had from the Hibs support and the encouragement they have given me. Scottish football needs Hibs back in the top flight.”