Where did it go wrong for Neil Lennon at Hibs?
We should begin by pointing out at Neil Lennon hasn’t actually left the club yet and this could be a case of writing his Easter Road eulogy before the life support machine has been turned off. However, at the time of writing, it seems almost certain that the Northern Irishman has managed his last game at the club.
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It’s been quite a fall from grace for a coach who just eight months ago may as well have been doing that aeroplane celebration at the end of the 5-5 draw against Rangers while walking on water. Not only had he dragged the club back up to the top flight, he’d got them back into Europe. Hibs fans fully embraced their manager and everything he stood for. Barring another team coming in for him it seemed this marriage would be a long one.
Then this season happened. Currently Hibs sit eighth in the table with just two wins from their last 14. Admittedly, odds were against him replicating the success of last season was always going to be difficult when Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan left and John McGinn was sold to Aston Villa. Those three were such a crucial part of the team and the catalyst for the success in the second part of last season.
There’s also been some injury issues to contend with this season. While their troubles haven’t hit the headlines like neighbours Hearts, they’ve had more than their fair share. With the exception of Martin Boyle and the elusive Thomas Agyepong, there haven’t been many long-term casualties, but a series of strains and knocks has necessitated changing the team more than the manager would have preferred. A team that picked itself last term has been fiddled with on a weekly basis.
That being said, Lennon shouldn’t be absolved of blame for the team’s poor form this reason. Far from it.
In fact, a lack of accountability has been a common accusation running through fan reactions to today’s news. There have been a couple of tactical disasters this campaign - away to Kilmarnock and the recent 1-0 defeat at Motherwell being the two that stand out - and yet Lennon, even when admitting that he had to take responsibility for results, has continually sought to blame the players.
His absence while Hibs were in their seven-game rut earlier in the season didn’t go over well either. It was spun as the manager needing the extra time to focus on how to pull his team out of a tailspin, though fans were left without answers from the only man who could give it to them at a time when they needed it most.
It was quite telling that often after matches in which Hibs didn’t secure victory, Lennon would blame the forward line for failing to convert their chances. While this was sometimes the case, frequently these comments came after games where the midfield three had lost their battle. Whether he did it consciously or not, accusing those players of failing to pull their weight would have been an admittance of responsibility.
Losing three terrific players in one area of the park is difficult, but it’s what Scottish football bosses up and down the country have to contend with every season. Replacing quality with quality is part of the job, outside the top two our teams don’t have the fiscal power to hold on to them for long. Blaming the midfield would be admitting the players he brought in to replace McGinn, McGeouch and Allan weren’t good enough, and they were his signings. Of course, Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren were his signings also - we can also include fellow attacker Martin Boyle, who Lennon didn’t sign but is someone who blossomed during his time at the club - but they enjoyed a sustained spell of terrific form under Lennon previously. If they weren’t performing as they had done, well then, that was down to them.
If the fans grew weary of this then it seems the first-team squad definitely did. A “full and frank” exchange between the manager and the players escalated to the point where chief executive Leeann Dempster felt the need to get involved. It would seem the players had reached their breaking point.
As one supporter put it to the this writer on social media: “You can’t whip a horse all the way around the track and expect it to win.” One wouldn’t be surprised to see Kamberi post that in inspiration-quote form on social media in the coming days, given the number of times he was singled out by the management staff.
While Hibs were in the Championship, Lennon had made himself the master of cracking the whip at the perfect time, most notably after an away draw at Raith Rovers which came just days before their 3-1 destruction of rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup replay at Easter Road. But it would seem he went to the tactic too often and the response wasn’t there any more.