Neil Lennon believes that, with a little patience, Jason Cummings can go all the way in football, insisting it’s still far too early for the Hibs striker to be thinking of leaving Easter Road.
Lennon persuaded Cummings to commit to a new four-year deal during the summer, having made retaining the Capital club’s top scorer of the previous two seasons a priority from the minute he succeeded Alan Stubbs as manager. And the Hibs boss believes the 21-year-old can look at how his own career panned out – from a trainee with Manchester City to a £5.75 million move to Celtic with 40 caps for Northern Ireland thrown in – as proof of how not rushing things can pay dividends.
Lennon said: “When I was Jason’s age I was playing in League Two with Crewe. You don’t know where the game is going to take you if you apply yourself and look after yourself. I can’t say what sort of career he is going to have, but he’s made a good start and you forget sometimes how young he is. “I forget it sometimes because he’s leading the line for me and he’s our main goalscorer which is a big responsibility, but he handles it well.
“His record is something like 100 starts and 55 goals already which is a good return. He knows there are deficiencies in his game like he knows there are good things. But he wants to learn and that’s what I want to see.
“The career is there for him if he wants it, and I think he does. He’s made a great start to it. When you are his age you have designs and ambitions of going as high as you can. If you have the talent, which I think he does, and the applicatiion then nothing should stop you other than serious injury really.
“He can play in England one day – goalscorers are the difference. I talk to him about what could be in front of him and how to go about it.”
The most important of those chats between manager and player, as has been much publicised, took place in Paris when Lennon was working for the BBC at Euro 2016, the newly-appointed Hibs boss so determined to hang on to his star player he invited him to join him in Paris where Cummings found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of former England players Alan Shearer and Rio Ferdinand.
While questioning the impact meeting Shearer and Ferdinand might have had on Cummings’ thinking, the youngster admitting he was torn at that stage between staying and leaving, Lennon believed his own powers of persuasion would win the day in a face-to-face meeting.
He said: “I watched good managers like Martin O’Neill be very persuasive so you pick up on that.
“I knew if I got him in front of me I could sway it my way. Jason was of a mind to go when I first came in, the impression I got was he’d had enough of all the off-field stuff.
“But I was determined to keep him and was always confident that when I got him in front of me and we sat down I’d get him to stay. I was determined to keep him. Just look at his record – 25 goals last season and seven already this season.
“He’s happy here and I think it would have been too early for him to go because he needs to stay here and do what he is doing. He needs another year or two playing with us and then go if that is what he wants to do.
“The Paris thing was good. He enjoyed the night and just speaking football with those guys.
“It was good of them and it was good for him because it was a nice experience. I’m not sure how much of an impact it had on him because it was his future we were talking about and I don’t know if meeting a couple of superstars would have that much influence.”
Lennon and Cummings clearly share not only a mutual respect but a father-and-son-like relationship but that doesn’t spare the youngster from some tough love although he accepts being on the end of some harsh words from his manager is nothing more than a sign of his determination to have him make the most of his talents.
And, Lennon insisted, his actions shouldn’t be misinterpreted. He said: “I don’t want to spook him. It’s not bullying him but just giving him reminders. There are times he gets sloppy, not through anything deliberate, but you have to stay on top of him.
“He’s the kind of kid who has an infectious character, but you can have a go at him and he doesn’t go under and I like that. He comes across as easy-going and dizzy, but there’s a steeliness about him,
“In the main, he has been very easy to work with. There’s no arrogance about him. He’s quite self-deprecating and he has been a star for us so far.”
Like any striker, Cummings has his share of misses which leave fans shaking their heads in disbelief, hitting the bar from only a couple of yards out against Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park last season springing immediately to mind, the former Hearts kid later admitting he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but joking he deserved credit as few could manage such a feat from such a short distance.
However, such moments don’t faze him, Lennon pointing out how his attempted “Panenka” from the penalty spot in last season’s Scotish Cup semi-final against Dundee United was followed by Cummings stepping forward to take the last spot-kick in the shoot-out following the no-scoring draw to fire Hibs into that historic Hampden final.
Lennon said: “He never gets disappointed and you can see that in his play. Jason has the knack of being in the right place at the right time and that’s something you can’t coach. He missed chances on Saturday [against Dumbarton], one of which he made himself by charging the ball down only to try to dink the goalkeeper rather than finish it better than he did. He got under a header and there was another on the far post he should have taken but they all fell to him and that’s not luck. He has a good footballing brain already but there are other aspects he can improve on in terms of his game – intelligence outside the box more than anything else – but what he has given me at his moment is a phenomenal start to the season.”
And Lennon believes the introduction of veteran hitman Grant Holt to play alongside Cummings will help take his game onto another level.
He said: “Grant has been good for him, he’s experienced and he’s helping to bring him along. Grant was outstanding at Dumbarton in what he did, the nuts and bolts of the game that people do not really see and Jason is feeding of him.
“But we also have Brian Graham, James Keatings and others as well. Jason is younger than them but he’s learning from them all the time and that augurs well for him.”