Neil Lennon probably didn’t know it first time he clapped eyes on Scott Brown that one day the young Hibs upstart would be regarded just as fondly as he was by the Celtic support.
But over the years Brown’s one-time Easter Road team-mate Kevin Thomson has watched his good pal evolve into the commanding midfielder Lennon was at the height of his powers.
Thomson recalls vividly those early encounters between the pair, Tony Mowbray’s young up-and-coming side taking on a Celtic team packed with household names such as Lennon, Chris Sutton, Alan Thompson, Stilian Petrov and Henrik Larsson to name just a few.
Stars each and every one of them might have been, but that meant little to the teenage Brown.
Thomson said: “In those days Scott played that bit wider, but whenever we faced Celtic Tony Mowbray would pull him in a bit and tell him to bite the ankles of Lennon, to get right in about him.
“Celtic were a wonderful team, lots of top players all over the pitch, not just another run-of-the-mill Premiership side.
“But without being disrespectful to the others, Lennon was the one who made them tick. He was probably one of their smaller players, the rest were all big, strong players – even Petrov was a pretty big guy – but he was the one who went around picking up the scraps and getting the ball to the players who would make things happen.
“Scott was told to forget about anything else, to get him out of his rhythm, to get the ball off him and try to run away from him. He had tremendous pace, particularly from a standing start and when you saw him run away from the likes of Peter Lovenkrands at Rangers, you realised how quick he was.”
Needless to say, Lennon and the rest of the Celtic side didn’t take kindly to Mowbray’s kids trying to get the better of them.
“We were in different eras in our careers,” said Thomson, “We had the likes of Steven Whittaker, Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor, Scott, myself and others all just young boys on the block trying to make our way in the game and make them appreciate we were decent players which, I think, we’ve all gone on to prove.
“Celtic were never a nice team to play against, they were all characters, big personalities with big egos, and apart from Lennon, they all appeared to be 6ft 4in tall. They didn’t like us getting in their faces and trying to rough them up a bit.
“They could be rather disrespectful to us verbally, there was always a bit of chat and although we suffered a couple of trouncings, we also had a wee bit of success. I remember Scott using that pace of his to run away from everyone to loft the ball over David Marshall to clinch a 3-1 win at Celtic Park.”
Despite the face-to-face confrontations and the verbals which went with them, Thomson believes those days began to foster a healthy respect between Brown and Lennon which has deepened over the years, the now Hibs boss his pal’s manager for four years in Glasgow.
He said: “The two of them are very similar, terrific players, winners, aggressive, big, strong characters and what went on between them on the pitch didn’t affect them. It’s important as players you don’t get caught up in that bubble and allow yourself to get carried away.”
Brown’s Easter Road career came to an end with a £4.5million move to Celtic, but not before he had signed off by scoring one of Hibs’ goals in a 2-1 win over the Hoops in the final game of the season.
But by the time he arrived in Glasgow, Lennon had gone, signing for Nottingham Forest before returning to Celtic in a coaching role, taking the reserve team under Mowbray before becoming caretaker manager when the ex-Hibs boss’ ill-fated time at the Glasgow club came to an end before taking over on a permanent basis.
Lennon immediately confirmed Brown would retain the captain’s armband he’d been handed by Mowbray and replicated the success he’d enjoyed as a player by winning five trophies in four years while forming a close relationship with his skipper.
Thomson, who himself left Hibs to join the other half of the Old Firm, said: “Obviously I’ve never worked under Neil, but Scott says he was a great gaffer and the two of them are still pally. I’m sure there will be a bit banter on Saturday and they’ll enjoy a beer afterwards.
“Neil probably landed the Celtic job quicker than he’d ever have imagined after Tony had that difficult period. It was a case of sink or swim – and he certainly swam. He was really successful as Celtic manager but as a Hibs fan I’m delighted he’s at Easter Road. I like listening to him because of his honesty.
“As for Scott, there’s no doubt he’s matured into a real No.6. Because of his power and pace people saw him as the driving force, but now he’s someone who dictates things from deeper to the pitch. If you look at his stats from the Champions League last season, he’s been different class.”
Lennon will be guaranteed a genuinely warm reception from the Celtic fans as he returns to the club for the first time, but while that will be much appreciated, Thomson has no doubts as to what will matter most to him – Hibs.
He said: “It’s always nice to get a bit of recognition when you go back to an old club, particularly when you’ve enjoyed the sort of success Neil had.
“But while I never worked under Neil, I know what he is like having spoken to him in person.
“He’ll have Hibs fired up, he’ll be determined to make his team hard to beat, to frustrate Celtic and to try to hit them on the counter attack.”