Neil Lennon today claimed the Premiership will bring out the best in his players after Hibs clinched promotion following a three-year absence from the top flight.
The Easter Road side finally clinched the Championship title as they cruised to a 3-0 victory over Queen of the South, with nearest challengers Falkirk’s draw with St Mirren leaving them 11 points clear at the top of the table with only three games to be played.
While admitting his side have been inconsistent throughout the season, the Hibs boss pointed to how they rose to the big occasions as evidence they will cope, insisting: “When they really put their minds to it they’ve played exhilarating football at times.”
Lennon admitted to be “very excited” at the prospect of taking charge of Hibs in the Premiership, revealing he’d been thinking of the day the club returned to Scottish football’s top table for “a few weeks”.
He added: “It’s a sense of pride and achievement. I’ve won the Premier League a few times and I’ve won the Championship – there’s not many managers who can say that.”
The former Celtic manager, who famously branded his new side as “a boy band” when he succeeded Alan Stubbs last summer, made changing the players’ mentality an immediate priority and, in taking ten points from Falkirk – so often Hibs bete noire in the past couple of seasons – he offered proof that had taken place.
He said: “I thought we were a bit soft because I thought we played nice football, were easy on the eye, but we kept losing – and losing to teams we shouldn’t have been losing to. They raised their game for the big matches so we wanted them to go to the Queen of the Souths and the Dumbartons and dig out results.
“The big games at a club like this take care of themselves, but it was the other games that mattered. The other thing was that if we couldn’t win, don’t lose it. We did have a few more draws than we would have liked, but each point was important going forward.”
Lennon, who revealed the extensive list of players who are out of contract at the end of the season have all been offered new deals, admitted he’d like to keep his current squad together, although many will feel it will need strengthening for what lies ahead.
He said: “It is up to the players to accept or if they want to move on. It’s now up to them. Do they want to play in the Premiership at a good club like this? If they want to go somewhere else for more money that’s their prerogative.
“It would be a shame [if some left] because momentum is all important when you get promotion. It’s important to keep the squad together. They are a good bunch and they’ve enjoyed some success in the last year-and-a-half.”
Lennon’s players felt the sharp end of their manager’s tongue on more than one occasion, most notably following a 1-1 draw away to Raith Rovers in which he decried their “shambolic” performance.
But, he insisted, he was perfectly entitled to do so, saying: “I called them out publicly and people were saying ‘what’s he doing that for?’ It’s my job to do that whether the players like it or not. Then they went and hammered Hearts here. You set standards and they fell way below it.”
Lennon was adamant the Scottish Cup ties against Hearts served as a huge distraction for his players, resulting in a dip of form but pointed to the way they crushed the Tynecastle side as proof they have what it takes to compete in the Premiership.
He said: “Look, the reason they are in the Championship is because they switch on and off. We had to make them more consistent. Now we are in the Premiership I don’t think there will be as much inconsistency. The expectation will be less, but there will still be expectation to finish in the top six, I would imagine. I think the players need Premier League football.”