Hibernian have returned to the Ladbrokes Premiership with two deserved wins from two, plus progression in the Betfred Cup. It is now time to respect Neil Lennon’s side and take them seriously, writes Joel Sked.
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“I want to finish best of the rest.”
Already promoted, Hibs were unlucky to go down 3-2 to Aberdeen in a topsy-turvy Scottish Cup semi-final. Neil Lennon was, understandably, feeling buoyant having witnessed his side hold their own against the second best team in the country.
Days later, on BT Sport as a guest for the Premiership play-offs, he proclaimed his intentions. An ambition which was, to an extent, ridiculed.
Over the summer, one in which they lost talismanic goalscorer Jason Cummings, Lennon didn’t quite renege on his hopes for Hibs on their return to the top-flight, but he became more coy, more guarded.
Only recently, in an interview, he spoke of staying in the division first and foremost, making sure a club of the stature of Hibernian never found themselves below the top tier again. However, behind closed doors he has been more forcible in his aims, his players well aware of what is expected of them.
Back in May, it seemed a case of over-excitement. ‘Calm down, Neil. You are back with the big boys now.’ Celtic would dominate, Derek McInnes had been building a resolute and respected squad for a number of seasons, and Rangers had the financial advantage. St Johnstone were, well, St Johnstone. Write them off at your peril. Then, Hearts. The Gorgie management team promised that the squad would be refreshed and rejuvenated in preparation for a fight for the European places.
Nearly 100 Days have passed since Lennon was sitting at Tannadice, the abuse from Falkirk fans clear, pointed but acceptable, expressing his confidence in his side.
At one point this summer, around the time Kyle Lafferty opted for Tynecastle instead of Easter Road, that confidence among Hibs fans was waning, concerns expressed about the club’s lack of strengthening. Five Betfred Cup and two league games later, it has shown to be no more than needless worry.
Neil Lennon, his squad of players and Hibernian Football Club mean business.
Much of the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat of Rangers has focused on John Beaton’s performance, and the wailing and whining from a minority of Rangers fan about Lennon’s apparent ‘inflammatory’ behaviour: ‘Football manager celebrates goal passionately in front of stand of people who have given him dog’s abuse’. The shock and horror of it.
However, it has meant that the Hibs performance has somewhat gone under the radar.
Lennon made reference to it in the post-match interview, his team seemed spooked in the opening 15 minutes. The indefatigable and, surprisingly, intelligent running of Simon Murray gave the team a foothold in the game, the striker netting a fine individual goal. Even before Ryan Jack’s contentious red card, the away side were in the ascendancy.
Having played with a back four for the majority of the season, Lennon switched to a back three. Without key players Martin Boyle, who offers width, directness and pace, and Marvin Bartley, a man who appears to do the job of two defensive midfielders, the Northern Irishman simply restructured. No issue at all, the players were used to the switch, Hibs comfortable in a variety of formations.
To some teams, when switching between systems, it can appear that they have never set foot on grass before let alone kicked a football. Not Hibs, Lennon has worked on structure and organisation. No matter the system or personnel there is a solid base to the team, one hard to penetrate, while simultaneously being set up to accompany a variety of attacking avenues. This was clear before the ruckus which lead to the red card in the 36th minute. Hibs’ midfield three had gained control, with Murray stretching play. Both Dylan McGeouch, a wonderfully flexible, tactical and technical midfielder, and the unfussed Vykintas Slivka were key, but it was John McGinn who was the dominant individual.
When breaking through at St Mirren it was remarkable that this was a player who had just turned 18. While he played with a carefree attitude and the enthusiasm of a teenager, there was also an incredible physique. He looked like a boxer but had the ‘legs’ of a middle-distance runner. He was a coup by Hibs, earning Scotland recognition in the second tier. While arguably the most talented player in the Championship in the past two seasons, and despite the player of the year award, there were numerous underwhelming displays. It was as if he needed a bigger challenge, a step up. He has got that step up and, so far, has risen to the challenge.
The way he went up against Abdul Osman against Partick Thistle, treating him like a piñata. The way he swaggered around Ibrox with a purpose, controlling the flow of the game. He has laid down an early marker to say ‘this is my midfield and you’re not going to get a sniff’. It’s like watching a younger, perhaps more rounded, Scott Brown. Opposition players are treated with the lack of respect they deserve. If he was playing in Spain he’d be referee to as a todocampista - the complete midfielder, someone who can access all areas of play.
Yet, the 22-year-old is just one of a number of impressive performers in a flexible, versatile and balanced squad. One which puts their capital rivals to shame. Question marks were raised about Murray’s adjustment to life as a Premiership striker. So far he has been electric. He’s a goalscoring N’Golo Kante. More astutely, Lennon has added proven Premiership and international experience throughout the spine. Players who know how to play and, more importantly, win. No matter the conditions, no matter situation. Plus the addition of two Lithuanian internationalists who add the foreign mystique all fans love.
It has all amounted to the most balanced squad in the top-flight. They have the pace on the counter-attack, a sufficient defensive arsenal, a reliable goalkeeper, creativity, width and goals. As New Order sang in their World in Motion hit, “You’ve got to hold and give, but do it at the right time. You can be slow or fast, but you must get to the line. They’ll always hit you and hurt you, defend and attack.” Hibs can do bit of everything.
As well as the technical and tactical qualities, they also have the physical and mental attributes.
The team have been whipped into shape. They are not quite The Monstars from Space Jam but there is a big, powerful backbone to the team, a required characteristic of any successful Scottish side. What makes them more frightening is the likes of Steven Whittaker, McGregor, Efe Ambrose and Bartley can all shift. Further up the field there are willing runners to put pressure on the opposition, players who, you feel, could play 90 minutes back-to-back.
Tieing it all together is Lennon. As impressive as he has been with his recruitment, organisation and strategy, the one over-arching trait he has instilled has been a stronger mentality. Not just within the playing squad, but the fans and club as a whole. Even after the Scottish Cup win, Lennon still spoke of Hibs as a soft-touch. While the axing of the cup hoodoo acted as a hammer to the ‘Hibsed it’ mentality, Lennon has got out his chisel and removed the little negatives which were still around, refining the psychology of the club.
The cup win, the promotion, the superiority in derbies, the positive messages spread by those working behind the scenes and Lennon’s bullishness has all fed into a better, more jovial atmosphere. Rather than having opponents poke fun at the club - whether it was for their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory or simply making a mess of the club’s official Twitter handle - they are being recognised for their forward-looking both on and off the park.
A disenfranchised and estranged support has been re-energised. There is a connection between the fans and the players, the fans and the club. Their away following is ‘bouncier’, the home support noisier and more colourful. Everything has come together to help develop the club and move it forward. It has taken a relegation and three seasons in the Championship but Hibs are making strides rather than steps forward. As one.
Leading it all is Neil Lennon. Rather than revolution he has brought evolution to the club. There’s a resilience, a robustness, to Hibs. They should now, more than ever, be respected.