Following Martin Boyle’s call-up to the Australia national team, Joel Sked looks at the influence Neil Lennon has had on the player’s development.
When the 25-year-old joined on loan from Dundee in January 2015 in an unusual loan-switch deal which saw Alex Harris going the other way, a call-up to Australia or Scotland wasn’t so much on the horizon as in a different hemisphere.
Speaking to Hibs TV the winger said: “Coming up through Montrose and Dundee we never thought that this opportunity would come. I’ve really knuckled down and worked hard.”
There is no disputing that latter part. He was 21 when he joined Hibs and his career until that point had been staggered, starting in part-time football while he earned some extra cash helping his mum with her courier job.
A scintillating 2011-2012 season for Montrose saw Dundee buy the winger, taking him from the fourth tier to the top tier. Within six months he was back on loan at Montrose.
Prior to his move to Easter Road he was a threatening but inconsistent presence in the Dundee team. He took a step down to the Championship from the top-flight when he joined midway through the 14/15 season. His 17 outings were enough to convince Alan Stubbs to make the deal permanent, becoming a useful squad player the following campaign - he started 14 games, came off the bench on 19 occasions.
Enter Neil Lennon.
The Northern Irishman arrived at Easter Road following a successful spell at Celtic, which lasted just over four and a half seasons, and a difficult period in charge at Bolton Wanderers.
Under Stubbs, Hibs were capable of wonderful moments of football, but as their form in the Championship suggests they were too inconsistent.
Lennon was (and still is) a winner. His Celtic sides are not talked about in the way of other Celtic teams. Maybe somewhat harshly they are not regarded as great football teams, more functional.
He took over a struggling team from Tony Mowbray and instilled a sense of desire and organisation back into the squad.
With the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Ledley, Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster and so many more they were capable of obliterating teams. Across four full seasons Lennon’s Celtic side scored three or more goals on 74 occasions. Still, they weren’t seen as this expansive, easy on the eye side.
It was expected that he would take drag Hibs, kicking and screaming, back into the top-flight. There were moments - and there still are - where he had to use the stick; at times that stick seemed reinforced and covered in barbed wire.
Yet, what he has created during his time in Leith is an expansive, energetic, high-tempo, slick passing outfit. Within that, he saw Martin Boyle as a player who he could mould and improve to become an key asset.
It has been an interesting relationship. Lennon has previously griped about the player falling to the ground too often during the Championship-winning campaign, while this summer he was left frustrated by the player’s performance in the final third against Molde.
But any criticisms have been offset by a heap of praise.
Following the win over Dundee last month he said: “Boyle is an outstanding player. The only thing missing is more goals. He has great pace, enthusiasm and quality and he is only going to get better.”
He has been getting better for a long time now. When there were question marks about his ability to make the step from the second tier, he answered them. When there has been uncertainty that he could continue last season’s form into the current campaign he has stepped up once more.
As for the doubts that he relies simply on his pace, watch the way he took the ball out the air against Dundee and slid a perfect pass through for Flo Kamberi to score.
Boyle has always had that searing pace. It simply needed direction and refining. Much of what forms such improvement is confidence and belief. That is what Lennon has provided Boyle, and many more.
He wants his players to be positive. If something doesn’t come off, don’t go hiding. Lennon does not want players who shirk challenges or responsibilities, he wants individuals who stick out their chest and continue to be on the front foot despite any adversity.
The manager has created an environment to let players express themselves. He has embarked on a challenge to rid Hibs of a ‘boyband’ mentality. In its stead has arrived a more confident, bordering on arrogant - in a good way - belief: less immature, no longer weak.
Under Lennon, John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch, Brandon Barker, Scott Allan, Kamberi and so many more have played the best football of their career. Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson are night and day compared to their previous spell in the top tier.
It is therefore no surprise at all that clubs are more than happy to lend Hibs players. They see a pathway to improvement, while getting a good grounding under a demanding manager, one who still instills fear, even in some of the biggest egos.
Join our Facebook group Our Edinburgh to share images and news from and around the Capital