Hibs rise to meet Neil Lennon’s high demands

Neil Lennon at full-time after guiding Hibs to victory over city rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup replay at Easter Road. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Neil Lennon at full-time after guiding Hibs to victory over city rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup replay at Easter Road. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

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It was tennis star Arthur Ashe who once said that, as a sportsman, you are playing yourself, your own high standards 
and that when you reach those 
limits, that is where joy is found.

There was joy etched on the faces of the Hibernian players and manager in the wake of a derby triumph that not only granted them bragging rights in the city, but allowed them to add another Premiership scalp to the collection.

Grant Holt celebrates his goal against Hearts. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Grant Holt celebrates his goal against Hearts. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Fighting on two fronts, 
Easter Road manager Neil Lennon has always been adamant that securing promotion back to that level of the game is the priority for this season but his well-timed verbal 
volley was a tell-tale sign that he wanted a place in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup as well.

Hammering the players after they dropped points in a second successive league match, he admitted he is a perfectionist, and demanded a reaction against derby rivals Hearts. Having set those high standards, he saw his men rise to them. “Sometimes I think I know what I am doing,” the Hibernian boss joked after Wednesday night’s victory. It looked that way as his team defied Hearts, out-thinking them, out-playing them and certainly out-fighting them.

Boasting effective man-management in the lead-up, he was also spot-on with his tactics which were positive, with players detailed to press the game and set a high tempo, and his team selection was full of belief. He perfectly blended players who could unsettle the Gorgie team, with pace, with physical strength and street smarts, with quality and attacking verve and each and every one of them brimful of the passion and will to win that no-one in maroon could match. His weekend rant had, he said, reminded him that there was still a fire burning in his belly, a flaming desire to succeed and it reminded his players that good is not good enough when better is expected. Despite a plump points cushion at the top of the league Lennon’s well-timed criticism forced his men to lift their game further.

Lennon channelled his ire at the assumption that Hearts would be the team to benefit from a surface that represented a significant improvement on the flaking, Tynecastle pitch from the initial head to head. It annoyed him because he believes he has quality footballers, who can move the ball well and, having challenged them to prove that – actually, he demanded it in no uncertain terms – they did just that.

“Everyone was telling me that the pitch would suit Hearts and Hearts would come and play us off the pitch,” he added.

“I enjoyed those comments because we can play, and we are a hungry team. More than anything, the level of performance [we gave] for 90 minutes was intense, controlled and ferocious at times. It was quality.

“There’s huge potential here but I don’t want to get carried away because we have to earn the right to get out of this division but you can see what the club and the players are capable of. The fan base is superb, we’re a big club in Scotland but we have to earn the right.”

It was a night for everyone at the club to savour, bettering any of their unbeaten derby runs since the 1970s, and the way it was masterminded, in the days beforehand and on the night itself, vindicated the appointment of Lennon in the summer.

A man who has managed in the Champions League and is used to being at the top of the Scottish football tree as a player and manager, some wondered if he might get bored with life in the Championship, frustrated with his lot. But something has been stoked within him and, as well as maintaining the development of players he inherited, he has tried to find the right places to finish the jigsaw puzzle, adding a bit of weight and presence, literally and 
metaphorically with his 
signings.

Grant Holt will admit that his best days are behind him but just like Lennon was as a player, he is the kind of guy opposition fans and players love to hate as he makes his mark on games and bullies rivals and team-mates alike, a narking, niggling, demanding personification of his manager.

“You want to score and you want to score in a derby,” said the striker, whose goal on Wednesday was his first since October.

“But I have always said that my aim is to get Hibs back to the Premiership. I don’t care if I score one goal or 50 goals, my aim is to get us up by hook or by crook.”

Against Hearts, Holt was one of many men in green who made their intentions clear. They met the standard and the joy followed.

Game, set and match. Ashe would have approved almost as much as Lennon did.

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