On November 21, 2015, Steve Clarke’s Reading side won 2-1 against a Bolton Wanderers team managed by Neil Lennon in an English Championship match at Madejski Stadium.
Less than two years later, on October 31, 2017, Lennon’s Hibs side defeated Clarke’s Kilmarnock team 3-0 in a Scottish Premiership encounter at Rugby Park.
Managers of ambition and substance generally tend to make the move from Scotland to the top two divisions in England – not the other way round. But the volatile nature of management down south, where highly capable operators routinely get eaten up amid the chaos and left with their reputation in need of repair, meant Lennon and Clarke viewed the opportunities at Easter Road and Rugby Park respectively as ideal for getting themselves back on track after things went awry for them down south.
The fact both men are leading contenders for the various manager of the year awards serves as vindication of their decisions to return north as they prepare to lock horns once more at Easter Road on Saturday. While Brendan Rodgers will merit all the acclaim he gets if he leads Celtic to a second successive treble, Lennon and Clarke are the two top-flight managers who have really pulled up trees this season.
Celtic, boasting comfortably the biggest budget and the best squad in the country, started the season as overwhelming favourites for all three domestic competitions. Rodgers, therefore, could only be considered the manager of the year if he was able to do something truly exceptional, such as last season when he oversaw a remarkable undefeated campaign, or if none of the other managers in the league achieved anything particularly notable. Although the history books will potentially show Celtic recording back-to-back trebles, there has been an overall deterioration in their play this season, as evidenced by the fact they have won only two more league games than both Rangers and Aberdeen, neither of whom have had vintage campaigns.
If impartially assessing the accomplishments of the 12 Premiership managers, it is impossible to look beyond Clarke and Lennon as the two standout performers this season. Both the Scot and the Northern Irishman have taken their teams to levels few would have envisaged at the start of the campaign.
If the season ended today, Clarke, having overseen one of the most radical and instant transformations Scottish football has witnessed for many years, would take the honours. Although his Kilmarnock team sit a place and seven points below Hibs, pound-for-pound the Rugby Park side have performed better than any of their rivals this season. For context, it is worth remembering that when Clarke arrived in Ayrshire to replace Lee McCulloch in October, Killie sat bottom of the league with three points and no victories from their first eight matches. They were ten points behind sixth-place Hibs. Since then they have catapulted themselves up to fifth by beating every side in the league bar Hibs and Aberdeen. Indeed, the Dons are the only side to have beaten Clarke’s team since Hibs won in Ayrshire in the aforementioned Hallowe’en encounter. Remarkably, the transformation from relegation fodder to outside candidates for a Europa League spot has been achieved without any notable transfer activity. Aside from the addition of the influential Youssouf Mulumbu, Clarke has generally been operating with the same group of players that struggled so badly under McCulloch. The spectacular upturn has been predominantly down to the manager’s ability to get the best out of those already at the club.
Lennon himself endorsed Clarke’s credentials as a leading contender for manager of the year ahead of the 2-2 draw between the teams at Rugby Park two months ago. Since then, however, the Hibs manager has strengthened his own claims considerably by leading his team into the thick of the battle for second place. If he can get his team above both Rangers and Aberdeen over the remaining four games of the season, then his achievement would be every bit as impressive as Clarke’s. At the start of the season, even though they had just been promoted from Championship, Hibs were widely expected to finish in the top six at the very least. This assertion was based on the club’s budget; the overall strength of the squad; the positive vibe generated by winning the Scottish Cup and then the Championship; results against top-flight teams in cup competitions; and the presence of Lennon, a serial winner in Scottish football.
In each of the previous two seasons, Rangers and Hearts had both gone straight from the Championship to the Premiership’s top three, so simply being in the mix at the top end is not a particularly remarkable feat in itself for one of the country’s biggest clubs. However, the manner Hibs have gone about their business, allied to the level of competition in their area of the league, has lent Lennon’s accomplishments additional credence. Although Aberdeen and Rangers have not been particularly formidable, they are still strong and relatively consistent teams at Premiership level. Hibs are currently going toe-to-toe with an Aberdeen team who have finished second in each of the previous three seasons and a Rangers side who have a vastly superior budget and a squad strong enough that the Easter Road side’s top scorer from the three previous seasons – Jason Cummings – has been unable to get a regular game.
In addition, Hibs have left city rivals Hearts in their slipstream despite the Tynecastle side being able to add established internationalists like Christophe Berra, Kyle Lafferty and Steven Naismith. Outwith Celtic, Hibs are the only side in the league who have beaten every other team in the top six this season, while they have also become more accomplished in recent months at dealing with the division’s lesser lights. The fact Hibs are pushing for second at the business end of the season can be attributed largely to Lennon’s drive and determination to get the very best from his squad. If they can actually achieve the feat, the clamour for the Lurgan man to be named manager of the year will be hard to resist.
In the meantime, Saturday’s game between Hibs and Kilmarnock can go a long way to determining whether the Easter Road side can secure second place or whether the previously floundering Ayrshire side – who looked destined for the Championship just seven months ago – can finish within a few points of fourth place in a season when the top six has otherwise been dominated by Scotland’s five big city clubs. Either of those achievements would be remarkable enough to justify Clarke or Lennon being recognised as the Premiership’s best-performing manager this season.