Interview: Neil Lennon on Trainspotting and a cup sequel bid

Hibernian manager Neil Lennon at the club's East Mains training centre. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Hibernian manager Neil Lennon at the club's East Mains training centre. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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There are flags and scarves and badges. There are crests and strips and team photos – and, exactly where Renton left it in the first Trainspotting, a peeling poster of caricatures of the 1972 Scottish League Cup-winning side. There is footage of George Best shimmying in green and white as Ewan McGregor’s character reflects on being taken to see the great man by his father, only to have his view blocked by an unhelpfully gargantuan fellow standing in front of him. “But I’ve still got the programme from the game and that’s what matters, eh?” he says. Yes, as Neil Lennon, who attended the world premiere of the sequel, attests: “There’s a helluva lot of Hibs in this movie.”

Invited to Sunday’s screening by the man responsible for the Hibee-hued cornucopia, Irvine Welsh, Lennon returned the compliment by getting Trainspotting’s author along to training at East Mains and he’s just left the complex as we sit down to talk. “The film portrays the club in a really good light so it was the least I could do,” says Lennon. “Irvine is a massive fan, of course, and he told me he really enjoyed meeting the boys.”

Did the Hibs manager enjoy T2, as the follow-up is known? “Absolutely. The first movie [released in 1996] was my era. I was at my peak back then. That film was knockabout; this one’s got a bit of soul as the guys, who’re older now obviously, get introspective the way middle-aged men do. Even Begbie [Robert Carlyle’s psychopath] shows an emotional side, which I never thought he had, and the film gets quite deep.” Like Welsh’s favourite radges and gadgies are having mid-life crises? “Absolutely.” Has he ever had one? “I think it’s probably ongoing right now!”

The 45-year-old Lennon is joking, at least I think he is. What is more certain is that he’s a Welsh buff. “I’ve read all his books. Loved them,” he declares. I tell him the story of how Welsh and Gordon Strachan grew up on the same housing estate in Edinburgh’s Muirhouse and played football together, with the writer convinced the future Scotland star would make it in the game from the way he dodged the 
broken glass and dog poo. He loves this. “That’s brilliant. Let’s get back to those days.” The over-cosseted modern footballer is a familiar Lennon theme. “Don’t get me started. We’ll be here for another hour!

“Listen, I’m all for looking after players but sometimes it goes too far. The game’s too sanitised now. We’ve got a barn here, half the size of an indoor arena, where we throw the kids, give them a ball and tell them: ‘Right, get on with it.’ They aren’t coached. We’re trying to let their natural instincts come to the fore. There’s been a huge improvement in their mentality, physicality and temperament.”

Hibs hope the team of tomorrow will emerge from that barn; meanwhile what of the current lot, six points clear at the top of the Championship and with a capital derby to come in their defence of the Scottish Cup? “Six points – it could have been better, it could have been worse, so I’ll take that,” says 
Lennon, who leads his men to Queen of the South today. “It’s a competitive 
division. The conditions are sometimes difficult because clubs don’t have the facilities of the Premiership sides. But we’re on a decent run right now so I’m pretty pleased.”

An 8-1 victory in the cup is bound to make you chipper. “It was a no-win game for us,” he says of the Bonnyrigg Rose tie, “but that’s a good scoreline whatever the opposition.” We talk about Kris Commons and the “Stubbsy”
chants which can still be heard and the prospect of him going back to Tynecastle and also his depression. “It still happens, it doesn’t leave you,” he admits.

First, though, we discuss attitude. The “Hibsing it” jibes stopped at around ten to five on 21 May last year when the club banished a 114-year-old curse. A few weeks later, first day after taking over from Stubbs, Lennon recalled the Hibs he encountered during his time at 
Celtic where he was both player and manager – “Boyband,” he called them.

The attitude this season has impressed the boss and, perhaps not unsurprisingly, he reckons he’s taken it up a notch or two. “The team did 
brilliantly to win the cup. They’d had a really horrible experience at Falkirk a few days before [tossing away a lead in the Premiership play-offs to lose in the last minute] and they were two-one down to Rangers in the game. To win showed they had character… when they put their minds to it.

“We’ve tried to shift the mentality some more. I’m not saying we’ve cracked it yet but I think they’ve got a little bit steelier. Last season they lost games they shouldn’t. They’ve had to grind out results this season but can I trust them to go on a 15-game run? Probably not. We’re in a good position but we’re not clear yet.”

The day after the final there would have been no Hibby still left sober who could have predicted their club would quickly become the concern of one of the Scottish game’s most flammable characters. These Hibs fans, in common with others around the land, had more than likely jeered the man on his visits to Leith with Celtic.

Lennon thought he was done with Scottish football. More than the jeers he had been sent letter-bombs, assaulted in the street, attacked by a fan on the Tynecastle touchline and got so close to Ally McCoist during an incendiary 
Old Firm game which led to calls for a “sectarian summit” that he could count the then Rangers manager’s nostril hairs.

“In football you just never know,” he says of his quick return north of the border. “I had 18 months at Bolton Wanderers. The first season went okay but in the second the financial problems were such that I had to cut the wage bill by 50 per cent.” Bolton, £173 million in debt, were hit with a winding-up petition over unpaid taxes. “It was an impossible job,” adds Lennon, who eventually left by mutual consent.
“That experience was difficult but was still an experience from which you can learn. Now I’m at a club where the structure is good and there’s the 
possibility of success.

“I didn’t think I’d be back quite so soon but there are lots of things about Scotland I missed.” Such as? “Life, 
people, where I lived, my family, friends, personalities, the warmth – all the stuff built up over the 16, 17 years I’d lived in Glasgow. You know, my time before wasn’t as bad as it was perceived.” Nevertheless, these were king-sized issues he encountered, resulting in headlines like “The most persecuted man in Scotland”. “Well, I was always well looked after by the intelligence services,” he says almost matter-of-factly, as if nasty packages through the post were routine in football. “All of that is something I don’t want to go through again. I don’t think the tensions are as high in Glasgow; it’s a different time now. Life is a lot quieter for me, and more enjoyable.”

Despite the madness, does he miss the intensity of Parkhead, the Old Firm and the eternal struggle? “It was a part of my DNA, so yes, a bit, but this job is a big challenge. It’s a different challenge but there’s an expectation here. It’s one I’m really enjoying.”

Okay, but surely this wasn’t part of the plan. He can’t have envisaged 
taking a team on league business to Dumbarton with its funny one-
sided stadium. He reiterates: in football there can be no plan. “Listen, I spent my formative years in England’s lower leagues – people forget that. You have to earn the right. Dumbarton have earned the right to be in the Championship, regardless of their facilities, and we have to earn the right to get out of this division.”

High on the cup, and having bid farewell to a much-loved boss, were the Hibs men wary of Lennon? “Yes, and that was good, and I played on it. I can’t be their friend; I don’t think as a manager you can. Plus, I’m now a 
different generation from guys playing the game. They’re academy boys who at school had mobile phones and laptops. I tend to think my generation - who were given the strap and the cane and bollockings – were tougher. The hairdryer treatment has to shelved although I admit I’ve razzed them up a couple of times.

“But then I maybe got too demanding. I said to Gary [Parker, No 2]: ‘They’re used to me; it’s not having any effect’.” That was the time when we didn’t win a game for a bit. We had a night out together and that was important. The team went on a very good run. So it was useful to bridge the divide between the players and myself… but not entirely close it.”

Lennon is a complex fellow. While he uses the words “quiet” and “mellow” to describe his life today, bouts of depression still re-occur. “There have been sporadic episodes. As you get older they can be quite severe. The consolation is they’re not as prolonged as the first ones when I didn’t know what was happening. I’ve never got to the point where I’ve wanted to end it all but the episodes aren’t pleasant. Once 
out of them the world is definitely a 
better place.”

What’s his coping mechanism? “Simplifying life. No alcohol, plenty of 
exercise, a bit of meditation. In that you learn to stay in the moment rather than look behind or ahead. Fifteen minutes of deep breathing and I can focus on myself and nobody and nothing else, which can be difficult if you’re a football manager.” How does he get away from football? “Family, reading, learning a language. Right now I’m studying Portuguese.” Apart from Welsh, he devours Ian Rankin’s Rebus books and is currently reading John le Carre’s 
The Night Manager.

Revealingly, he says the challenge he faces at Hibs is bigger than being Celtic manager. It’s almost true that Queen of the South represent a trickier
task than Barcelona. “The attention to detail required here is greater than I had at my previous clubs. At Celtic you can got to the point where the team played in a rhythm. Plus, these were international players. This is different. Although we have the biggest budget in the Championship, there isn’t such a gulf between the teams.” Lennon is dealing with opposition he doesn’t know, and players he’s still getting to know. “At Celtic I was part of the infrastructure. Here I’m having to learn about the Hibs boys’ personalities, their quirks, their foibles.”

Choose books… choose Portuguese…
choose meditation. Borrowing the riff from Trainspotting, this might be the manager’s personal code. What about Hibs’ code? Chose beating Hearts… choose retaining the cup… choose promotion? One of these things simply has to happen. Nevertheless another eternal struggle now presents itself with the Jambos to be faced in the cup’s fifth round, but it’s a new one for Lennon. “My first Edinburgh derby, it’s a mouthwatering tie,” he says. “I’m sure this derby will be as keenly-fought as the Old Firm one, with sub-plots all of its own. There’s tradition, history and the fact Hibs beat Hearts at the same stage of the competition last season. I’m well aware of the rivalry. Hearts, I’m sure, would love to put us out as holders but my team won’t want our ownership of the cup to be ended 
by them.”

What about Tynecastle? Although he went back there with Celtic after the events of August 2011, you presumably don’t forget being jumped by a fan in a hurry, or that a jury found the case against his attacker “not proven”, an outcome which caused uproar and prompted calls for the special Scottish verdict to be scrapped. “It’s a ground of which I’m very fond, despite the unfortunate history,” he says, which sounds 
pretty generous considering what happened at a subsequent match there, a League Cup semi-final between Aberdeen and St Johnstone. “Things were thrown at me and I had to leave the game, but that was nothing to do with Hearts or the Hearts supporters. Tynecastle is a ground I enjoy because of the great atmosphere it generates.”

During last Saturday’s tie there against Bonnyrigg, with cup-winning manager Alan Stubbs present, there were shouts from the Hibbies of “Stubbsy, Stubbsy”, and a revival of the John McGinn song also mentioning him which had dropped out of the repertoire but has since returned. Does he mind the references to his predecessor? “Not at all. Alan is a hard act to follow, given what the fans think of him. The songs don’t bother me because he won them the cup and he’s part of the club’s history now.”

Still, I say, the supporters usually follow up with a quick burst of 
“Lenny, Lenny”. He’s a man, they probably feel, who should be kept sweet. He laughs. “I don’t take the songs personally. Singing them obviously makes the fans happy and if they’re happy, I’m happy.”

When he arrived he said he didn’t want the players “dining out” on the cup triumph. Have they even snacked on it a little bit? “There’s been a lot of publicity about the winning of the cup but I don’t think the boys talk about it much.” Given that the team have exited all other cup competitions pretty quickly this season, how does this one fit into the campaign? “We don’t want it to get in the way of the league but at the same time we want to be successful in it. The 
Scottish Cup was a good competition for me at Celtic. Promotion’s the priority but can we win the cup again? Yeah, why not?”

Not bridging that player-boss divide too much, he says Jason Cummings still has a bit to learn and Dylan McGeouch could score more goals. He wants Kris Commons back – “I don’t need him but I’d like him.” And he wishes he had 11 Darren 
McGregors: “That would make my job the easiest in the world. I admire his attitude, bravery, leadership, will-to-win – he’s a fabulous player.”

Nevertheless Lennon has been “pleasantly surprised” by how much he’s relishing being at Hibs. Ask him about ambition, and the suspicion that if he gets the Hibees up he’ll be off, he says: “I’m happy here. I like the club, the people I work for, the players and the supporters. I’m really enjoying this job even though I may not always look like it! I feel fortunate to be here and see it as a huge privilege.”