Hibs boss Neil Lennon has backed his players to handle the intensity of Ibrox, insisting they have “a great chance” of returning to the Capital tonight with a victory.
The Easter Road side face Rangers in a Premiership match for the first time in five years with many making Pedro Caixinha’s side favourites to win but Lennon was adamant the trip to Govan holds no fears for Hibs. He said: “Of course, we’re going there with optimism. Absolutely. We have a great chance. We’re not just going there to make up the numbers. We want Hibs to be a force, not just this season but in years to come.”
Lennon, however, admitted Ibrox was a difficult venue to visit at any time but believes his players will thrive on the atmosphere created by a 50,000 sell-out crowd. He said: “Look, I’ve got a lot of experience in that dressing-room. I’ve got Efe Ambrose, who has won titles, I’ve got Steven Whittaker who has won titles.
“I’ve got players who’ve won cups, I’ve got international players. So it’s not an atmosphere they won’t have experienced before. Ibrox is a great amphitheatre to play in, and you’ve got to thrive on that. And I think my players will. They have played in many big games now over the past couple of years when their backs have been to the wall and they have come through it very well. They handled the Championship last year, they played well in all the big games. They also handled the cup games against Premiership opposition and the derby games very well. So I’ve no real worries about my players getting nervous. I know there is good mental strength in there. You’ve just got to keep showing that week in, week out.
“You only get two trips to Ibrox and Celtic Park in a season so you’ve got the make the most of them. What you don’t want – and this is a bit rich coming from me – is anyone getting over-emotional. You’ve got to stay cold and concentrate on the game.”
Lennon is looking forward to returning to Ibrox for the first time in five years having, of course, made the headlines there both as a player and manager.
He said: “I have missed it, who wouldn’t. You miss the drama and the intensity and the theatre of it. That’s what it is really, it is theatre, Yes, it’s sport, it’s entertainment, and there’s a darker side to it sometimes. But hopefully that can be kept to within the confines of the game.”
Lennon watched the second half of his last match at Ibrox on a television within the media room having been sent off, the accusation he had used foul and abusive language “being thrown out within five minutes” when he was hauled before the beaks at Hampden.
He said: “There have been a few surreal things happen to me over the years. I’ve had great occasions there – Beach Ball Sunday, that sort of thing. It’s all been part of the drama. This is different. I’m going there with Hibs but there is still a good rivalry.”
Lennon agreed it was sometimes harder to stay calm on the touchline than as a player but, he declared, he enjoys such occasions. “Yes, there can be some venomous things said, but there can also be a lot of humour there as well. You can’t take yourself too seriously there.
“You hear some quips from the crowd. You try to put on a straight face but sometimes you can’t help but snap. But I enjoy it. I enjoy getting off the bus, I enjoy walking out on to the pitch. I enjoy winning there – when you win it is a great feeling. So I want my players to go and enjoy that experience as well.”