In contrast to the reception Rodgers can expect if he returns to Celtic Park in the near future, Neil Lennon is looking forward to a positive welcome when he heads back to Easter Road with Celtic in the Scottish Cup this evening. At least he hopes that’s the case.
“I would like to think it would be good,” said Lennon yesterday. “I think I was good for the club. We did a great job there. We did the first part, which was promotion, which wasn’t easy. We had a great season last year. It wasn’t so great this year, but the standards we set last year were always going to be very, very difficult to maintain, particularly with the quality of player that we lost. Paul [Heckingbottom] has gone in there now, got three wins out of three and done really, really well.”
Both Lennon and Rodgers left their respective positions after around two-and-a-half years in charge. While both exits might have been shocks, they were in very different circumstances.
Rodgers chose to sever ties when on the brink of a triple treble having been attracted by the lure of the English Premier League. Lennon’s departure was, in classic footballing phraseology, “mutually agreed”. Mystery still shrouds exactly what happened but it’s clear Lennon didn’t seek his exit.
The prospect of returning to Easter Road, where he is bound to run into the likes of chief executive Leeann Dempster, does not therefore present any awkwardness. “I wouldn’t have thought so,” he said. “Not from my point of view anyway. It’s worked out all right for me…”
Where he will agree it could get awkward is on the pitch. Lennon knows all about Hibs’ ability to post a shock this evening having orchestrated the defeat of Celtic on their last trip to the stadium as recently as December.
So he was never likely to dismiss their threat – Marc McNulty, Hibs’ currently free-scoring striker, was identified as a signing target by Lennon before he left, and then there’s Florian Kamberi, such a pivotal figure in Lennon’s departure following reports of the former manager’s heavy handed treatment of the forward. Kamberi struck a thrilling goal in the 2-0 win over Celtic just ten weeks ago.
Among Lennon’s complaints about the Swiss player was his tendency to only turn it on in big, televised matches. Ominously for Lennon, tonight’s quarter-final meeting certainly qualifies as one of those.
The sight of Lennon turning left rather than right when he emerges from the tunnel this evening will jar – providing he remembers it’s the away dugout he needs and not the home one. The last time he was in the former was for a 4-0 win for Celtic in January 2014. As Hibs manager he had a good home record against Rodgers’ Celtic – two wins and a draw, making Easter Road one of the few Scottish top-flight grounds the new Leicester manager failed to win at.
It would be understandable if Lennon is still dazed from the last few days alone. One minute he was getting ready to embark to Dubai for media work and the next he was settling back into some familiar surroundings at Lennoxtown, where he met reporters yesterday in the same room where he held court during his first spell as Celtic manager. It feels like no time at all – it was just five weeks ago yesterday – since reports first emerged Hibs had suspended him.
“I never got the chance to say goodbye, but these things happen,” he said. “Brendan hasn’t had the chance to say goodbye to the Celtic support. That’s just the way it is. One minute you are working, you are in the throes of it, you have been there for years, seeing people every day. Next minute, boom, it just all stops. And that takes a bit of getting used to.”
According to Lennon, this is one reason why Rodgers is being treated the way he is by Celtic fans – the sharp, sudden nature of his exit has heightened the sense of dismay. As someone who knows the sharp edge of sectarianism better than most in Scottish football, he rebukes those who have sung sick songs about him.
“There is a lot of emotion, a lot of spontaneous reaction,” he said. “You can understand the soreness, but what we have to remember is what he did for the club and the legacy he has left.
“When people take a step back and look in the cold light of day, he is up there with the greatest with what he has brought to the club in terms of success and enjoyment.
“I understand there is agitation there,” he added. “But from a personal point of view, I wish him all the very best because I know him very well. And I know the club do as well. We have to move on now.”
Lennon hasn’t spoken to Rodgers this week but they will, before long, catch a few quiet moments to chat on the phone and share stories about a crazy few days.
“We texted each other the other day and I will give him a call when things settle down,” he said. “It will be hectic for him as well.”