Liam Fontaine knew what to expect when Neil Lennon replaced Alan Stubbs in the summer. The Hibs defender first crossed paths with his new boss on the pitch over a decade ago and the experience offered the perfect insight into the mentality the Englishman and his team-mates will need to impress their gaffer over the course of this season.
“I actually made my debut in Scottish football when he was in the opposition team,” said Fontaine, who had headed north as a youngster to play for Kilmarnock in January 2005, with manager Jim Jefferies throwing him in to face the defending champions. “It was the biggest game I’d played as I was 18 and went on loan from Fulham to Kilmarnock.
“I remember watching him in his time at Leicester and he was always a hungry player, who wanted to win and he has put that across to us and our standards have risen and we’ll go into the game buzzing.
“Then I played against him. Killie v Celtic at Rugby Park, it was a 1-0 defeat – it was actually a tight game, I remember it quite clear. Celtic had a great team at the time. Chris Sutton scored, I believe. They showed that if you are going to be a champion side you have to be able to win games 1-0. If you are not going to score you shouldn’t concede and he’s trying to put that into us and it’s up to us to take it onto the pitch and grind the results out if needed.”
It was something they proved unable to do against Queen of the South in the League Cup and their early exit from the tournament annoyed the manager, who spoke of his dissatisfaction with the defensive display on the night and the number of unconverted chances at the other end.
“Training’s a high level and he expects a high level if we slip below it. He’s entitled to give us a piece of his mind and we’re big enough men to be able to deal with it and move on.”
Fontaine had to take his share of the blame, having missed a gilt-edged chance when he headed a pin perfect delivery into the box from James Keatings wide of target. When asked about it, his response is no-nonsense. “I was getting pulled but it is what it is, I missed a chance and I won’t miss one again.”
That self-belief will please his manager. As one of the more experienced heads in the dressing room, Fontaine understands that as one of the biggest names in the Championship Hibs are there to be shot at.
If they were dealt a blow on Tuesday, he says they have to be sure not to allow Dunfermline to land another one, in the league, at Easter Road, this afternoon.
“We’re the biggest club in the Championships so everyone sees us as a scalp. We have to be able to deal with the pressure it brings.”
The opening day victory over last season’s nemesis, Falkirk, has given them a sound platform from which to build but the slip up in midweek served as a reminder of how difficult other teams can make things.
Lennon wants his team to acknowledge that and then find a way to grind out results that don’t come easily.
“He sets very high demands, every manager has different expectations and we’ve all had to raise our fitness levels and training levels, everything has risen. It’s definitely something I have noticed and it will stand us in good stead for the rest of the season.
“It’s a completely new way of playing and what we expect of each other. It’s good. I feel we’re going to be better mentally this year, definitely, and we know what we want to achieve and how we’re going to go about it.”
Some of that stems from Lennon, but the lessons of last term – good and bad – and the massively-positive impact of coming through to win the Scottish Cup and finish their season on a high should not be underestimated according to the centre-half. “It’s experience. Every year you’re in the game you gain experience – losing finals, in play-offs, gaining experience from them all.
“Last year we had a lot of ups and downs and showed great character to finish on a high. Now we have a new manager and a new style about us and we all want to learn and he’s a great manager and person to learn from because of what he has achieved in the game itself and the levels he has played at.
“It’s a great thing, for the youngsters especially, and even the older ones such as me.”
Rhys McCabe insists Dunfermline will be out to prove they are on their way back to the Scottish top-flight when they take on title favourites Hibs this afternoon.
The former Rangers youngster will be making his first visit to Easter Road since suffering a 4-1 defeat by Italy on his Scotland under-21 debut in 2012 and is hopeful of building some happier memories of the Edinburgh stadium.
The 24-year-old midfielder said: “You want to play in the best games you can and having Hibs and teams like that still in the league attracts crowds.
“Going to Easter Road and playing in front of over 10,000 people is great, especially for Dunfermline, considering where the club’s been in the last few years.
“But it’s only deserved for the way we played last season and it’s where we should be.
“I’ve played at Easter Road once before, in a Scotland under-21 game. We lost to Italy, unfortunately.
“But it’s a good stadium and there will be a big crowd, so it’s important you handle the occasion well and focus on the job you’re set out to do, which is to try to get a result.”