Neil Lennon leaned back in his chair on Tuesday night. Then, with a glint in his eye, he said something that made the ears of those in the room prick up. “People keep telling me how we are a passing team. Well, I still need to see that.”
Whether it was a challenge or even a rejoinder to predecessor Alan Stubbs, who in an interview at the weekend, also seemingly half in jest, claimed he had left Lennon with “all the tools”, only the Hibs manager can say.
If it was the former, then John McGinn accepted the criticism yesterday, and vowed to get better. It’s probably safe to assume the midfielder was among those to whom Lennon was referring when he questioned his team’s passing credentials.
McGinn, so roundly praised last season, found the going harder at Easter Road on Tuesday as Queen of the South took control of the Befred Cup second round tie. After trailing at the interval 1-0, the Dumfries side blew their hosts away with three second-half goals.
“That’s fair,” said McGinn, when informed of Lennon’s comment to the media. “After last night anyone could see it wasn’t good enough and it’s up to us to prove the manager wrong and show we are a passing team. We know from the squad and last season that we’ve got it in our locker.”
It is also possible that Lennon was being impish with his observation. After all, with the considerable physical presence of Grant Holt added to the attack, Hibs are perhaps more minded to play the long ball. Lennon, anticipating the complaints about such direct football, is perhaps getting his retaliation in first: “Well, if Hibs are so good at passing, where is the evidence?”
Even those Hibs fans most devoted to the idea their team plays a special, more pleasing form of football had to admit that there was precious little sign of this in midweek. McGinn believes that in order to achieve their ultimate aim this season of promotion, Hibs may have to learn to be adaptable. As they now know only too well, the Championship is not necessarily a place where those who wish to play the right way flourish.
The defeat provided Hibs with a double dose of discomfort. Not only did the loss mean they had failed in their bid to reach an unprecedented third successive national cup final, it was also a reminder that they might not have it all their own way in the Championship. After all, Gavin Skelton’s Queen of the South are among Hibs’ league rivals.
McGinn accepts Hibs need to be better at finishing teams off when they have the chance. They also need to be more streetwise, which Lennon can surely help them become.
“I think it’s a nice mix,” said McGinn. “We can play football but we’ve brought in Grant Holt and that gives us another option up top. He started off well for us and he brings experience. There are certain times when you do need to go a bit longer. That’s something we’re learning.”
One of the ways to ensure Hibs score more goals, which Lennon has identified as among their failings under Stubbs last season, is to get the ball from back to front as quickly as possible. But more than this, it’s about taking chances, which Hibs plainly failed to do on Tuesday.
“The new management team have tried to instill in us that we need to be more ruthless,” said McGinn, speaking at Scotland’s new sports performance centre at Riccarton, which opens later this month.
“Easter Road was a tough place to go for teams last season so it was disappointing to lose at home. We need to be a lot more ruthless in the final third and our own box if we want to be successful.”
Hibs can make amends for Tuesday on Saturday, in a home clash with newly-promoted Dunfermline that suddenly looks slightly perilous. It’s still early in the season of course. But McGinn and his team-mates have already learned that they have no wish to ever again see Lennon as agitated as he was after Tuesday’s match.
“If he’s angry it’s from not doing our job,” noted McGinn. “We want to make sure he’s in the right frame of mind because we’re performing well and getting results.
“It’s good to get a kick up the backside, it’s what people need,” he added. “We can only use that to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We’re working hard towards Dunfermline. Hopefully at the end of the game the manager is talking about us in a positive sense.”