Hibs boss Neil Lennon has no regrets at not calling off tonight’s Edinburgh derby, even though he will be missing ten players.
The Easter Road club could have invoked a FIFA ruling to have the visit of Hearts postponed with three players – Martin Boyle, Mark Milligan and Jamie Maclaren – called up by Australia to play in the Asian Cup, the trio having flown out to the United Arab Emirates immediately after the Boxing Day draw with Rangers at Ibrox.
Hibs chose not to do so, but since making that decision teenage centre back Ryan Porteous and derby-day veteran Lewis Stevenson have been ruled out through injury, joining Ofir Marciano, Ross Laidlaw, Marvin Bartley, Thomas Agyepong and Miquel Nelom on the sidelines, while Greek internationalist Charalampos Mavrias has also left the club on the expiry of his short-term deal.
Lennon claimed it would have sent out the wrong message had Hibs sought a postponement. He said: “What message does it send to the rest of the squad if we call the game off because three players are missing?
“Sorry, we can’t play without these three, we are not good enough to beat Hearts or whoever at home? That sends out the wrong message. Our next game just happens to be Hearts and we feel that we have players here who have played at a very high level and we beat Celtic without the three Aussies. There are plenty of reasons to think that we can perform against Hearts.”
Lennon revealed there had been mixed views within Easter Road about the subject, but questioned just how far Hibs might have had to go, pointing out that if Asian Cup holders Australia progress beyond the knock-out phase, he will be without Boyle, Milligan and Maclaren when the Premiership resumes after the winter break, with Motherwell being the Capital club’s first opponents.
He said: “We had discussions about it and some people felt that it would be a good idea to call it off, and some didn’t. It is the time of year when people are coming for holidays and from all over the world for the game. It is a marquee game in our season and I think we should play it.
“If you call the game off and Australia proceed, do you then call of the Motherwell game? You just can’t specify the Hearts game and not Motherwell and the games after that. I didn’t feel the need to call the game off.
“Ideally we would like them here because they are important players, but the decision was taken out of our hands by the Australian FA.”
Admitting Hibs were “damned if they did and damned if they didn’t”, Lennon went on: “The game could have been rearranged for January, February, March or whenever and we could have a raft of injuries then as well.
“If we lose the game, we lose it. It won’t be because we did not call it off, it will be because Hearts played better or we didn’t play as well as we can. It is down to us. It would have been the easy thing to do to call the game off, but we didn’t. So let’s just play the game.”
Depleted his squad might be, but Lennon insisted he saw a real belief about his players as they came from behind to force a second draw in a week against Rangers.
He said: “It’s excellent for the mentality of the team and for their level of performance. You don’t need any motivation for a derby. As soon as you walk out and soak up the atmosphere, even in the warm-up, you can feel the extra anticipation in the air.
“Then they’ll have to play aggressively but be controlled and not to get too emotional. It’s an important game for us to psychologically get into the top six as we have been hovering around for a while and not getting there.”