Paul Hanlon: Hibs have a unique insight into what Celtic will be up to
If Neil Lennon instilled one thing into his players as head coach at Hibs it was the belief that they could go toe-to-toe with anyone – especially at Easter Road.
While Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic swept everyone before them, the Edinburgh ground was one where victory eluded him, thanks in no small measure to the man who has now replaced him as manager at the Glasgow outfit.
Tonight Lennon, inset, returns to face Hibs in the quarter-final of the Scottish Cup, back in charge of the Hoops following the remarkable events of this week and little more than a month since he and the Capital club parted company although no-one other than those directly involved yet knows exactly why.
Given his two-and-a-half years in charge, Lennon obviously has the inside line on a squad of players now coached by Paul Heckingbottom, an intimate knowledge of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
However, while he concedes that may be the case, Hibs defender Paul Hanlon argues he and his team-mates have a unique insight into how their former head coach works.
He said: “There’s no doubt Neil knows us inside out and that’s something we’ll have to deal with. But it can work both ways, we know how he likes to set his team up, what he’s looking for in certain situations such as set-pieces and that sort of thing and how he can look to change things within a game.
“The fact he’s going to be in the away dug-out will only bring a bit of added spice to what was always going to be a lively match, under the lights, live on television and with a semi-final at Hampden at stake.
“Nothing surprises you in football, but what’s happened has been one of the stranger ones. Only a short time ago he was our gaffer and I don’t think anyone expected him to be back at Easter Road in charge of another team so quickly.
“Brendan Rodgers left Celtic so quickly I don’t think anyone had time to really assess what was going to happen, and before you knew it Neil was back there.
“Obviously he’s the opposition’s manager now but I think he’ll get quite a good reception from the Hibs fans. They really took to him in his time here, we had a decent bit of success and I think he deserves a decent welcome for the work he did.”
The return of Lennon was always going to loom large over this evening’s match but, insisted Hanlon, it won’t be a distraction for a Hibs side which has now won four successive matches, three league wins under Heckingbottom lifting them back into the top six in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
He said: “When Neil and Garry Parker left there was that period of uncertainty as there always is when there’s a change of manager, not just among the players but the staff who wonder what is going to happen.
“But when the new boss comes in everyone wants to impress, everyone fights for their place and, I think, that’s been reflected in results.”
Matches against Hamilton and Dundee might have been viewed as “winnable,” but Wednesday night’s trip to face St Johnstone was an entirely different proposition, McDiarmid Park a ground where Hibs hadn’t won in more than five years. However, that victory, particularly as Heckingbottom’s side came from behind to win despite having Vykintas Slivka sent off, has resulted in confidence going up by another notch.
Hanlon said: “Realistically, the league is extremely difficult for a club like Hibs to win given the sort of budget we have compared to the likes of Celtic, but while we look to finish as high up the table as we can every season, getting to the latter stages of the cup competitions is something we strive to do.
“We’ve enjoyed going to Hampden on a regular basis in recent seasons and want to get back there again.
“It’s obviously going to be tough this evening and we need to play well, particularly in defence. We need to show a bit of quality on the ball but there is no reason why we can’t do that.
“We’ve got a squad desperate to get into the semi-final and we know we have the players who can get us the win.”