I’ve had great days in Gorgie, says Neil Lennon

Neil Lennon says that his Hibs team are underdogs today but is looking to last seasons cup win over Hearts as inspiration.  Photograph: Rob Casey/SNS
Neil Lennon says that his Hibs team are underdogs today but is looking to last seasons cup win over Hearts as inspiration. Photograph: Rob Casey/SNS
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There isn’t even a moment’s pause from Neil Lennon when asked about the welcome he expects at Tynecastle at lunchtime. “Oh, it will be a warm one,” the Irishman said, tongue almost bursting through cheek.

Lennon and the Gorgie ground have acrid history. A fan careering towards him on the touchline when he was stationed there as Celtic manager five years ago saw to that. Hearts and Hibs have the most acrid history, as absolutely the bitterest of local rivals.

Yet, the 45-year-old can’t decide if the reception he will receive from the home denizens at Tynecastle this lunchtime will be even more thermonuclear because he will be in charge of a Hibs team going across the capital to defend a Scottish Cup claimed after a 114-year wait in no small part because they slayed Hearts en route to Hampden.

The mischievous side of Lennon seems to displace the supposedly now mellowed manager – “you should have seen me at half-time last week [of the 1-1 draw with Ayr], all that went out the window” – when pondering his first experience of Scotland’s second-most febrile derby.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. It truly returns him to the spotlight in Scotland for the first time since his arrival last summer at the Leith club, where he appears firmly on track to deliver them from their three-year top-flight exile.

Not since he left Celtic in the summer of 2014 has Lennon been a protagonist in as great a footballing drama in his adopted homeland as he will be today. We can judge that by how he reflected on the contrast with his traipsing in the Championship over the past seven months.

“It has been pretty laid back this season at most grounds around the country. I’m looking forward to it, with it being my first Edinburgh derby.

“I like Tynecastle as a stadium. I like the atmosphere it generates and I’ve had some great days there. I assume Sunday will be no different, in terms of atmosphere. I won’t look over my shoulder when the abuse comes. Though, we’ll see... It will depend on the scoreline.”

Lennon doesn’t give it the “seen-it, done-it” treatment about the fact he has played and managed in so many high-profile, high-octane football contests when his Hearts opposite number Ian Cathro can count such games where he has been front and centre on the fingers of one hand.

The Hibs boss sees his experiences as offering him no advantage over the recently appointed Tynecastle manager. Lennon knows his team’s place, and it isn’t the team that should be expected to win.

“For me, Hearts are clear favourites,” he said. “They’re a Premier League team and they brought in nine players in January – which not many clubs were able to do.”

Lennon, as if he could, has no intention of stripping the emotion from the occasion when he sits his players down pre-match. “Building up to it I have been concentrating on other things and saying I’ll deal with it when the time comes, but I know the importance. I’m not going to say it’s just another game because it’s not,” he said.

“It’s a big city derby, it means a lot to our supporters, and we will do our damnedest to overcome the opposition. It won’t be easy. It’s going to be tough, it will be how our players handle the occasion. But they did it last year, so that may stand them in good stead, with those experiences being so recent.”

Lennon will watch both games of last year’s fifth-round clash between the capital sides, a replay required after Alan Stubbs’ men clawed their way back from a two-goal deficit at Tynecastle a year and five days ago.

During a build up he hasn’t found as “intense” as those he experienced with the “Glasgow derby”, he has failed to detect any “sense” that one of the driving forces this afternoon for his players will be the inability to countenance the defence of their Scottish Cup ending at the last place on earth they would want that to happen: Tynecastle.

“There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing last season about the fact that Hibs won the Scottish Cup and beat Hearts along the way,” he said. “The fans enjoyed that. But it could flip over. So I’ve got to be aware of that, and I’m sure the players will be to.”

There might be much for Lennon to be aware of in his vicinity today.