Playing the numbers game, Neil Lennon is focusing on keeping 11 men on the park and picking up three points. The Hibernian manager believes that succeeding in that first aim will go a long way to fulfilling the second against Dundee United at Easter Road today.
After five wins on the bounce at the start of their Championship campaign, Hibs’ hopes of setting a new club record by making it six were quashed by the dismissal of Marvin Bartley against Ayr United at Easter Road. Hibs were leading at the time, and Bartley’s red card, which was later rescinded, gave their visitors the opportunity and the impetus to overhaul the deficit and inflict the team’s first defeat. Last week, Hibs made it two games in succession without a victory. That match against Queen of the South in Dumfries ended all blank, with the 55th-minute dismissal of Lewis Stevenson cited as a contributing factor in the visitors failing to assert themselves.
Looking forward to the game with Dundee United today, Lennon acknowledged the importance of not gifting the opposition a numerical advantage again.
“That would be really, really helpful,” said the manager. “The first one with Marvin was unfortunate and we’ve seen that rescinded. With Lewis, on a yellow card, you’ve just got to be more careful. I’ve made that clear to the players. In all my time I’ve been big on on-field discipline and having 11 players, particularly on Sunday on the telly, would be a big benefit.”
The sending off wasn’t the only disappointment against Queens, with Lennon criticising his players after the match for not making more of the chances created, saving his most damning comments for striker Jason Cummings.
Having refused to mince his words, there was no back-tracking, saying that players who accept praise willingly have also got to shoulder the negative comments that then come along if they are under-performing.
“It’s a manager’s prerogative sometimes to criticise his players,” said Lennon. “I think these days we get really sensitive when managers come out and have a go at players. But when I was playing it was par for the course and you took it and said ‘I’ll show you’. Sometimes what you want is a reaction. I wouldn’t look too much into it.
“I think we can create more chances, even with 10 men, away from home against Queen of the South. I thought our play in the final third could, and should, have been better and I’ve got every right to voice that opinion. I’ve got a good reaction. I’ve got a good bunch in there and I don’t think they’re over-sensitive and I don’t think they sulk too much either.
“I know I was critical of Jason last week but he knows he didn’t play well and his reaction is he shrugs his shoulders and says ‘I’m ready again’. If there’s something I’m not happy about I won’t be shy in coming forward to tell them. If there’s something I am happy about I won’t be shy in coming forward to tell them that either. This is football. Are we going to hold their hands all week?
“If you see David Moyes’ comments at the weekend – and he’s right. If you’re 2-0 up and lose 3-2 sometimes as a manager you have to tell the players they have to accept responsibility. He can’t go out there and do it all for them.
“We’re certainly not in the predicament Sunderland are, but there are aspects of our game that were sloppy and should be better. I don’t think I’m asking for a lot and I don’t think I’ve been over-critical of them either.”
The fact they are so keen to get back to winning ways is fuelling Lennon this weekend, not the fact that the match is on television nor the identity of the opposition. Two clubs who have been more familiar with life in the top flight, many saw Dundee United and Hibs as the main rivals for the Championship title. As it is, Hibs currently lag behind leaders Queen of the South, while United are five points further back in fifth.
“It’s only a big game because it’s the next one,” said Lennon. “I’m not seeing it as the be-all and end-all by any means but we’re at home and we need to make sure we maximise home advantage.
“I think the game will be a good game, with two teams who want to play, and it will be open. We’ll have two teams going out for the win and that will suit us. Teams can set out any way they want. I’ve done that myself in my time as a manager but I don’t think Dundee United will sit in to defend – from what I’ve seen I don’t think they can.
“I think Ray is still working away with the squad in terms of what he wants out of it and he’s had to make a lot of changes, which takes time.”