Neil Lennon started the week with a tirade directed at his players before a big win over their capital rivals, only to come back to earth somewhat after losing a two-goal lead to draw with Dunfermline. Joel Sked looks at what next for Hibernian with so much left to play for
Sowing up the league as quickly as possible will allow Lennon to begin preparations for next season. He’ll have ideas of how he wants to develop the squad, but while there is still a semblance of doubt he will have to temper any thoughts.
A week is a long time in football. Last Saturday Hibs boss Neil Lennon let loose at his players following their poor 1-1 draw against Raith Rovers. A few days later Hibs comfortably dispatched their Edinburgh rivals in the Scottish Cup for the second year running, to set up a quarter-final home tie with Ayr United.
But then, a few days after that high, the Hibees passed up the opportunity to extend their lead at the top of the Championship, drawing with Dunfermline Athletic 2-2 in a game they could quite easily have lost.
Lennon used strong language in his post-match press conference following the draw at Stark’s Park last Saturday. One of the more interesting aspects of his tirade is what he said to BBC’s Chris McLaughlin: “It wasn’t good enough last season. We lost eight games last season. And they are going out with the same attitude that yeah, we can play good football. We can’t. I know a good football team. I know what they can do.”
It appears the comments were more than just for show, more than a ploy to stir the team ahead of the derby. The draw with the Pars giving substance to his words seven days on.
They wouldn’t be so eye-catching if Lennon was in charge of the team last season. He wasn’t. Alan Stubbs failed to get the team promoted during his two years in charge, but more importantly was his success in the cup, namely that famous day in May when he led the team to victory for the first time in 114 years. For that Stubbs will always be revered and remembered; his name still sung by the fans.
Lennon has somewhat been in the Englishman’s shadow. While respecting what Stubbs achieved, Lennon has had a couple of mild criticisms of the team. Early on in his tenure he spoke of the side’s mentality. Then last week he took the opportunity to launch his biggest jibe at the squad yet. It seemed it was a kick up the backside with the cup replay looming. Such a comfortable win in the derby coupled with a dominant performance will have endeared him to every home fan in what was a rocking and raucous support. He even took the role of cheerleader and conductor of the crowd at one point. He had arrived as Hibs manager.
The hope was the triumph would act as the platform to launch what is shaping up to be a momentous few months at Easter Road.
The league is the priority. It was the priority at the start of the season, it was the priority when drawn against Hearts, and it remains the priority. It is imperative the Easter Road men reach the top-flight after three campaigns in Championship purgatory, both in a competitive sense on the pitch and operational off the field.
The club have lost and continue to lose money in the second tier as they make sure the support turn up to watch a team which excites and competes. ANOTHER campaign would likely see John McGinn and Jason Cummings exit, and possibly Lennon as well.
However, another campaign in the Championship is remote, even after the third successive league draw. Other than an inconsistent spell before the new year which allowed Dundee United to leapfrog them, Hibs have been on course for a return. The club know they have the best team in the division. They have a predatory striker, they have the best player and their defence borders on impenetrable, conceding only 13 in 24 games.
The most reasonable explanation for Lennon’s outburst was to do with attitude and mindset. That is the one factor which may effect Hibs’ progress. If they take their eye off the ball that’s when they can be surprised, as they were against Ayr United earlier in the month and were again on Saturday, ahead 2-0 after 24 minutes.
Lennon will be expressing to his charges that they need to approach league games the same way as they did the derby. Unfortunately for Lennon the footballer’s mentality is not quite as simple. The Northern Irishman’s biggest obstacle is not tactical but man-management. If he is provided with the application he seeks then Hibs will ease to the league title.
Lennon will be earmarking the March 10. That is when Hibs travel to Dundee United, a week after facing Ayr United in the Scottish Cup. Again, the latter will take priority. If they can succeed at Tannadice, Hibs will most likely have one hand firmly on the trophy with the other beginning to reach for it.
Sowing up the league as quickly as possible will allow Lennon to begin preparations for next season. At the moment he will have ideas of how he wants to develop the squad to make themselves a formidable opponent against strong sides week in, week out. However, while there is still a semblance of doubt he will have to temper any thoughts.
Then there is the matter of the cup. If Hibs were to become the first side since Rangers in 2009 to retain the Scottish Cup trophy it would be, arguably, the biggest success in the club’s history, considering the dominance Celtic have exerted over Scottish football.
They should be at Hampden Park on the weekend of April 22 to compete in one of the semi finals. If they arrive in Mount Florida with a lead of greater than seven points in the league they will be able to play with a freedom. Free of expectancy, free of pressure, free of the cup hoodoo, they would be able to enjoy another day in the sun in Glasgow.
Despite sitting at a lower level in the Scottish football pyramid it is Hibs rather than Hearts who are moving upwards in the final months of the season. That’s what a derby win can do.