Hibs’ Marc McNulty was scouted by Celtic boss Neil Lennon – but there will be no favours in cup clash
Neil Lennon had no inkling of what was to come when he predicted only a few days ago Marc McNulty and Hibs were likely to cause Celtic more than a few problems in tomorrow night’s Scottish Cup clash at Easter Road.
“He is a good player,” said Lennon as he helped promote the quarter-final tie between what were, at that point, two of his former clubs.
“Once he gets up to speed I think he will score goals for them. They have goals in the team and they will be a threat to Celtic if they play to their full potential and catch Celtic on an off day.
“You could be in for an upset. Would it really surprise me if Hibs beat Celtic at Easter Road? On recent form you have to say no.”
As boss of the Capital outfit Lennon had, of course, made life difficult for his old club when they visited the north east of Edinburgh while McNulty was a player he was pursuing with some vigour ahead of the January transfer deadline as he sought to add greater firepower to his frontline.
However, while Lennon left under somewhat mysterious circumstances, that chase for McNulty continued, the Reading striker returning to his hometown on loan until the end of the season. And it’s been Lennon’s successor, Paul Heckingbottom, who has reaped the rewards for that persistence, McNulty’s double as Hibs came from behind to defeat St Johnstone taking his tally to six in just four matches.
As such he already appears to be “up to full speed” as Lennon prepares for a totally unexpected return to Easter Road, back in charge of Celtic for a third time following Brendan Rodgers’ defection to Leicester City.
Not surprisingly, McNulty confesses to “feeling on top of the world”, admitting it would “be nice” to underline Lennon’s appraisal of his talents with a winning goal.
“It was great to hear that,” said the 26-year-old, “Especially from someone like Neil. It would have been great to work under him but football is a funny game, things change quickly and he’s at Celtic now.
“Neil obviously wanted me in but Hibs have a recruitment team who do a good job getting players in. In the last couple of windows these kind of people have been trying to get me in. For whatever reason it didn’t happen.
“Neil left and they were the ones that kept at it so I am grateful for that. He wasn’t here when I came in so it hasn’t been much different but I’m sure a few of the boys were surprised at what’s happened this week.”
Having made it three wins in succession under Heckingbottom, McNulty agreed he and his team-mates are anxious to keep building momentum, but insisted confidence is high following that fightback against Saints which leaves them trailing three points behind Hibs who have taken over in sixth place in the Premiership table.
But it wasn’t only the win but the nature of it which delighted Heckingbottom, his side decidedly second best as they fell behind to a Chris Kane goal before McNulty struck, first from the penalty spot and then thanks to a superb through ball from Stephane Omeonga.
The striker said: “It was a massive win, very pleasing. We knew it was going to be tough, we knew what was at stake, three points as we fight for the top six.
“We knew we had to go up there and get something and going in at half-time one down it was great to get the win.”
McNulty had no sooner equalised than Vykintas Slivka was sent off, the Lithuanian midfielder picking up a second yellow card just as Heckingbottom was poised to replace him, the head coach’s courage in opting to continue with two frontmen paying off with that second goal.
“A point would have been good,” admitted McNulty. “But when it happened the game was still open, we were still in it. I always thought if we got a chance we’d take it and we did.
“It was an unbelievable ball from Stephane, that made it. All credit to him for seeing it.”
Having fallen out of the reckoning at Reading despite being a £1million signing for the Royals only a few months earlier, McNulty is simply enjoying playing football once again.
“As a football player, you just want to play. That wasn’t the case for me in the first half of the season which was disappointing. But that’s life, these things happen.
“For me, it was a case of coming up here, getting the head down and to enjoy football again.”
The goals, of course, have helped, McNulty saying: “Last season I had a pretty good run [at Coventry], but the start of this season wasn’t very good, I didn’t play much. Confidence is massive for every player. You play better with it and, as a striker, when you are scoring you feel on top of the world and look forward to every game, which is where I am now.”