NEIL Lennon can’t expect a garlanded welcome when he takes his Celtic team to Tynecastle on Wednesday. More likely a guarded one awaits, with security certain to be beefed up after he was attacked a year-and-a-half ago at Hearts’ home.
That experience hasn’t coloured the Irishman’s views of the Edinburgh club, however. He values them and their ground, where he has been victor as well as victim. While no-one would suggest Lennon is a closet Jambo, he is entirely heartfelt in rooting for the Gorgie side in the perilous financial position they find themselves as a result of owner Vladimir Romanov’s reckless stewardship.
“It is bad enough losing Rangers but to lose probably the third biggest club would be nothing short of disastrous really,” he says. “I am hoping they can get through the problems they are going through at the moment and come out the other side. I hope it is not the last [Hearts v Celtic] one ever because, despite the incident a couple of years ago, I like Tynecastle as a venue. I think, with it being a midweek game as well, it will be a wee bit more electric in the atmosphere.
“It is a great game for us and an important game for us, and these Hearts boys seem to galvanise themselves when they go through troubles off the field. I am not too sure once the whistle goes, that the financial problems will prey on their mind.”
Lennon was in the company of Hearts manager John McGlynn the other week, at the same table at the SFA Hall of Fame dinner. McGlynn’s need to firefight while the club finds itself engulfed by a bonfire of Vlad’s vanities wasn’t the main topic of conversation, however.
“We touched on it but it was already well documented and probably the last thing he wanted to talk about,” Lennon says. “He is a great football guy, he has just inherited the club at probably the wrong time. When you consider the job he did at Raith, he earned his spurs really, and for him to be going through this must be tough for him.”
Hearts shed several of their highest earning players over the summer, with inevitable consequences according to Lennon. “They are inconsistent, probably too much for John’s liking, but, when they played against us at Celtic Park, they played very well. We won it 1-0 but it was a tough game, we had to see it through and they came on strong in the last 20 minutes.
“They lost [Rudi] Skacel last year, lost a couple of players, Ian Black, [Craig] Beattie, [David] Templeton, so he [McGlynn] has actually done quite well when you look at the quality they did lose – it was probably their four best, and most consistent players, from last season. This season Callum Paterson has impressed me. He has been a real find for them and he is a handful. They have got a strong back four, with [Ryan] McGowan, [Andy] Webster, [Marius] Zaliukas and [Danny] Grainger, strong and experienced. We will have to play well to win.”
With Lennon intending to deploy some fringe players in next Saturday’s Scottish Cup tie at home to Arbroath, Wednesday will be the last time Lennon plays all his main picks ahead of the club’s season-defining Champions League game at home to Spartak Moscow on 5 December.
“We probably didn’t do enough to get a draw [in the 2-1 defeat last Tuesday] so the Benfica game is probably as disappointed as I’ve been in the competition. That shows how far we’ve come. We have one more crack at it, and what we have to do is win the game.”