Neil Lennon backs Efe Ambrose to prove himself at Hibs

Efe Ambrose could go straight into the Hibs team to face St Mirren tonight. Picture: SNS.
Efe Ambrose could go straight into the Hibs team to face St Mirren tonight. Picture: SNS.
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There has been a constant stream of jibes posted on Twitter since Hibernian revealed they have snapped up Celtic’s Efe Ambrose on an emergency loan deal.

Some questioned what situation could be so bad that the Nigerian defender was deemed the answer; others took that even further. But those are the kind of comments that rile the man who feels he got the best out of him when he was his boss at Parkhead. Neil Lennon insists that the much-repeated caricature of blundering defensive naivety is a gross misrepresentation of a man who has won the Africa Cup of Nations and faced up to some of the best strikers in the world on Champions League duty.

“People always talk about the mistakes he has made of late, the high-profile mistakes, but we have all made them,” said Lennon.

“I have made plenty and I played with Bobo [Balde] who had a few in his time, he really did, but I don’t think he gets derided as much as people tend to mock Efe. What I want to do is get him back playing and being successful for us and then he can go back to Celtic full of confidence.

“He has quality. He has been at Celtic for four or five seasons now and it maybe hasn’t gone as well as he would have liked in the last couple of seasons but under me he was fantastic and the one thing about Efe, he was never injured, he was always available and he trained every day. Even when he went away with Nigeria he still came back and was fit and available to play. He has that fitness and elasticity in his body and added to that he has great pace, he reads the game very well, and he can handle big opponents.

“It might take him a bit to settle in and get used to the Championship but I don’t think it will be that long because he knows the Scottish game very well.”

While Ambrose’s reputation has been blighted in Scotland by some high-profile errors, Lennon says that focusing on those does not give a full or accurate picture of the 28-year-old’s ability or hint at what he, along with fellow emergency loan signing Brian McLean, can bring to the title charge in the absence of injured Paul Hanlon, Jordon Forster and Liam Fontaine.

“I think the first four years of [Efe’s] time at Celtic have sort of been deleted from history the way people talk about him now,” added Lennon. “This is a guy who played in all my Champions League games, made the last 16 and we had some unbelievable results and he was a guy who was at the heart of it all. He has won the African Nations Cup with his country so he has great pedigree. He is only 28, so he is at his peak and he will be fresh because he has not played much football recently and we will be very lucky to have him, I think. I also think it is a coup for us that he wanted to come and we are obviously very pleased that Leeann [Dempster, the club’s chief executive] could get the deal done with Celtic.

“Brian [McLean] is a no-brainer. He is experienced, out of contract and I know him from his time with Falkirk and Motherwell. He’s been playing football at a decent level, albeit he hasn’t played for a few months, but it adds some bones to the squad.”

The newcomers trained with their new colleagues at Hibs’ East Mains training ground yesterday and Lennon could include both in the squad for this evening’s trip to St Mirren, provided McLean’s clearance comes through from Singapore, where he has been playing. If their arrival is a relief to their new manager, he says it has also boosted the squad after the options at centre-back had dwindled in recent weeks.

“Liam Fontaine will be out for a length of time and he will see a specialist on Thursday,” said Lennon. “He may require surgery as the ligament has come away from the bone and needs repaired, It will either require surgery, or they will let it heal. You can pin it, which helps it heal quicker, but that is in the hands of the specialist. Regardless, he’ll be out for a significant length of time.

“And while I’d like to rush Paul [Hanlon] back and I’d have thought he would be fit by now, he has had this other nerve problem and it is a grey area that is hard to be specific about. He is on medication to get the pain down. Hopefully
Jordon [Forster] will be fit for the weekend, but that’s a hamstring complaint, and if you rush that then there can be issues.”

But striker Grant Holt says the arrival of reinforcements has been timely, with the team battling to a draw against Dunfermline on Saturday but keen to get back to winning ways in the league.

“It is another game ticked off and we are seven points clear as we go for our goal,” said Holt. “Would we have taken that at the start of the season? Of course we would.

“We got a point v Dunfermline at the weekend, with Marvin Bartley playing at centre-half, Andrew Shinnie with a dead leg, Callum Crane being put on for his first game in a three at the back and [just days after the derby] when the legs have gone but we ground it out, put our bodies on the line. Now we might need other lads to go and do it against St Mirren.

“The wee injuries we have been picking up are probably because week in week out we have been flogging ourselves.”