On the night of a 0-0 draw with IF Elfsborg three years ago, Neil Lennon, then the Celtic manager, stood in a corridor at the Swedish club’s stadium and admitted: “These are horrible times for me”.
It was strange because the goalless draw with Elfsborg had secured a Champions League group place for the second successive season. But Lennon revealed that before kick-off he was as anxious as he’d ever been as Celtic manager.
So much was riding on the club’s progression to the group stage. His budget for the season ahead hinged on it for one thing. It was therefore understandable to see Lennon cutting a rather more relaxed figure yesterday on the eve of his first competitive match in charge of Hibs.
Although he is being pitched straight into European competition, there is rather less expectation weighing down on his shoulders now.
Hibs’ priority this season is promotion to the Premiership rather than reaching the group stage of the Europa League. Those Hibs fans who turn up tonight will obviously wish to see a competitive game but there will be fewer recriminations for Lennon to endure should the Easter Road side fail to progress to the third qualifying round.
Asked yesterday whether he felt a little more at ease now, Lennon said: “Spot on.” Reflecting on the inevitably fraught qualifying ties at Celtic, he added: “They were the most important games of the season, particularly when Rangers went out of the league. You did not even have the Celtic-Rangers games to look forward to.
“The be-all and end-all was the Champions League games. They came so early and you could get a really good team. In my first year we got Braga who went on to the Uefa Cup final v Porto. They are fraught with danger these games.”
In contrast to those nervy weeks at the start of a season at Celtic, he describes how he feels now as “reinvigorated”. As well as having had time to recover from a bruising spell at Bolton Wanderers, Lennon has worked as a pundit for various media outlets at this summer’s Euro 2016 tournament. The Hibs post came up at just the right time and he is determined to make the most of the opportunity.
“I’m really pleased to be back in the game up here,” he said. “I’ve 15 years in the game up here and I have brilliant memories. I know the environment really well. It’s a great club with a lot of potential and I want to fulfil that potential. I’m pleased with the quality of the squad and the attitude too. It’s really fresh for me and I’m excited about the new season.”
Neil Lennon wouldn’t be Neil Lennon without a fierce competitive streak. So while he has described this tie as a “free shot”, he is still desperate for Hibs to prevail. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves but it would be great,” he said. “We will take it as it comes. We got the toughest draw out of all the Scottish teams and we will try and negotiate it as best we can. But it is do-able!”
He describes Brondby, who begin their league campaign this weekend after finishing fourth last season, as a top end of the Scottish Premiership-standard side. But they are beatable, he stressed. Hibs, meanwhile, have the advantage of being a relatively unknown proposition for their Danish visitors.
“They won’t know many of our players – maybe John McGinn as he’s been capped at international level and Paul [Hanlon] and Darren [McGregor], who have been around and played at Premiership level,” said Lennon. “But I’m sure they won’t know too much about the guys, which is a good thing. We’re not going into this game to roll over and lie down and use it as a pre-season game. We’re going to compete. I said to the players: ‘You’ve earned the right to be here’.
“They did something no other Hibs team did for more than 100 years so it would be a waste to lose all that momentum in the space of two games. Put as much into the European games as you did in the cup games and let’s see where it takes us.”
After Hibs’ successes last season against top-flight teams, Lennon is adamant they should be able to compete even if he admits the side are slightly “under-cooked”.
Lennon is also set to hand Finnish goalkeeper Otso Virtanen a starting competitive debut. West Bromwich Albion keeper Alex Palmer, meanwhile, is expected to sign on loan before the end of the week to give Lennon further options. Hibs have been further boosted by the news last night that striker Jason Cummings has signed a new four-year deal.
“Otso’s not had an opportunity to show what he can do but he will get his chance,” said Lennon. “He knows the Scandinavian game from playing in Finland but he’s not had a run of games here yet. It may be we have a good keeper right in front of our very eyes. We don’t know yet but the opportunity will be there for him tomorrow.” A 4-1 win over Motherwell on Sunday suggested they have managed to hit the ground running again. Hibs’ fans can surely expect a better showing than the horror that was visited on them three years ago, when their team lost a home Europa League qualifying tie against Malmo 7-0.
While Lennon was enduring his own difficulties in reaching the Champions League group stage with Celtic, Hibs slumped to a record home defeat to the Swedish side – a game witnessed by their future manager, who was scouting a couple of Malmo players. With the Scottish Cup holders currently in the mood for righting historic wrongs this evening counts as their next opportunity to exorcise some demons.