In January Neil Lennon took something of a risk at Hibernian. Continually bothered by Anthony…
I admit it. I have and continue to have nagging doubts about Neil Lennon at Hibs. I had it when he was appointed, I had it when he was sent to the stands within the first half of his managerial debut, I had it when Hibs struggled to break down stubborn Championship defences and I doubted his claims that Hibs should be challenged for second place in the Premiership in our first season back in the top flight.
And yet, each time I doubt him, he proves me wrong and then doubles down on it by creating one of the most exciting teams at Easter Road in a decade.
I’m captivated by him. He fascinates me. He’s smart, articulate and interested in a life outside the game and yet he’s drawn towards controversy like a moth to a flame. It seems that the quiet life and Neil Lennon are not mutual bedfellows. So whilst I’m intrigued by his thoughtfulness, his love of GAA and crime fiction and how refreshingly frank he is about his own mental health struggles, it’s also difficult to square that with his numerous professional outbursts as well as conduct within his own private life.
But football clubs and fans are nothing if not hypocrites. We are willing to forgive misdemeanours if you are delivering for the club. And make no mistake, Neil Lennon is delivering for Hibs. He opened his Hibs career with a strong performance in the tie against Brondby, which was followed by five straight league wins. A slightly less purple patch followed but importantly, Hibs weren’t losing too many games. The naivety of Alan Stubbs had been replaced by a pragmatist who recognised that Championship sides were looking to frustrate and counter attack.
When given the opportunity to, his sides could play. The 3-1 demolition of Hearts in the Scottish Cup replay in February 2017 gave an indication that this side had also been built to entertain. Crowds were returning to Easter Road following the Scottish Cup win the previous year but Lennon’s side was giving those returning a reason to come back.
Another characteristic of Lennon’s Hibs has been his ability to get the best out of his players. No one exemplifies this more than Martin Boyle who has turned from a fast, effectively inconsistent winger into a bona fide starter on the cusp of an Australian national team call-up. Lennon also worked wonders on Jason Cummings, convinced the striker to sign a contract extension by taking him out to dinner at Euro 2016 and rubbing shoulders with ex-professionals like Alan Shearer. Lennon managed the hype around Cummings well, with him eventually being sold for well above his actual value to Nottingham Forest.
In dealing with player personnel, Lennon has also shown off one of his other fine attributes: his ruthlessness. Both James Keatings and Simon Murray performed well for Hibs, but didn’t demonstrate the talent necessary to take Hibs to the next level. Both were duly eased out the club but with no hard feelings towards Lennon or the club. The same approach was taken with Anthony Stokes, who was given a degree of leeway until it was obvious he was just becoming a distraction.
“Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan” said Count Galeazzo Ciano and therefore it’s difficult to attribute how much of Hibs’ recent success can be laid at Lennon’s door. He is supported by a highly functioning football department headed by George Craig. He’s also insulated from the realities of football club finances by having a proactive CEO in Leann Dempster. Furthermore, the set-up at Hibs, with the stadium redevelopment now complete and the Hibernian Training Centre fully integrated allows the first team to operate at optimum levels without outside distractions or restrictions.
And yet the doubts remain. Lennon’s combative nature is one of the reasons why he’s at Easter Road. It might sound pessimistic, but there’s surely a limit to the amount of times you can go to the wall of injustice and berate referees, players and latterly those above you in the management structure.
Many clubs would swerve away from having someone quite so outspoken, whereas Hibs choose to manage those semi-regular outbursts. Would other clubs do the same?
A counterpoint to that is that no one has left Hibs under his tenure and gone onto better things (yet). That will undoubtedly change in the coming months but four consecutive transfer windows where he and Hibs were winners has stood the club in good stead, but for Lennon too as it makes him a more attractive proposition for other vacancies.
Neil Lennon has exceeded expectations in his first two years at Easter Road. He and the club are on a similar trajectory. Will this remain the case into season three? The recent re-signing of Flo Kamberi suggests so, but as ever with Neil Francis Lennon, we should probably expected the unexpected.