I couldn’t make up my mind about Lenny the other night. After his team had lost to Hearts, had he compounded this by losing the PR battle? Or had that battle been craftily won, booting Craig Levein right off the back pages?
Here’s how my thought process went: Neil Lennon’s rage and despair had been over-the-top. Of course he’s a passionate guy and he was disappointed with the result. But the gloom had quickly spread to the Hibernian fans who were soon wailing about this having been the direst derby outcome since … well, the one they don’t mention and won’t, ever again. Lenny had sent out the wrong message. Supporters who’d cast off the hair-shirt of following a team which always Hibsed it, who could now greet any problem or low-grade crisis with a blithe “This doesn’t matter, we’ve won the cup”, were suddenly back to having a Bovril-half-empty outlook on the world again.
But then I wondered: what if he was kidding? What if his meltdown had been a piece of chicanery to, yes, deflect from the defeat, but also to deny Levein even a single headline celebrating Hearts’ victory?
Well, that worked. The big print told of “Lenny skedaddle threat” and “Leith boss goes radge in Gorgie and could quit”. But the fans followed the manager’s lead, however much he might have been method-acting, only their gnashing of teeth was genuine. For 24 hours at least it seemed they believed that achieving the runners-up spot in the league had been a knockout competition and that Hearts had eliminated them. Levein had perpetuated this with his riposte to Lennon’s earlier “Jam Tarts irrelevant” jibe. “We’ve put them out of the Scottish Cup and now we’ve stopped them finishing second. I think we’re relevant,” he said.
Well, this was a decent comeback from Levein who can’t be said to lack flair in his post-match quippery, but Hearts didn’t halt Hibs’ ambition all by themselves. St Johnstone had a much bigger say in matters by taking five points from a possible nine and being unbeaten against them. Even Hamilton Accies denied them four points. Being pegged back by Motherwell and Kilmarnock when leading 2-0 hardly helped Hibs’ cause, and ultimately their sorest defeat was the three points stolen in December by Rangers, who’re back at Easter Road this lunchtime to wrap up the campaign.
After everyone had calmed down, Wednesday’s defeat was put in perspective. It had been painful, no doubt about that, but far from epochal. Examined in the cold light of a Standard Life day and despite non-stop wind-ups from Jambo workmates, it didn’t define Hibs’ season and it certainly hasn’t been typical of it. And what about Lenny – has he calmed down yet?
He can have exacting standards – nothing wrong with that. He can be a bad loser – just proves he’s a winner. But if fourth place is enough to make a manager “consider his position”, then Levein (pictured inset, sixth place, chronic away form, eye-wateringly unlovely fayre, top-rated fouling) must surely be considering his, along with Derek McInnes (wimping out of both cups, one point from the Old Firm all season), Tommy Wright (bottom six, forgotten how to win at home) and a few others. And what exactly was Brendan Rodgers doing when he was unable to steer Celtic through another unbeaten domestic season? Calls himself a manager?
So, given that scintillating football, two hurtling wingers, a midfielder who charges forward rather than infernally passes sideways, a midfielder who says, nah, you charge, I’ll tie the ball to my foot with one of Alex Edwards’ old laces, maximum six points from Ibrox, more points off Celtic than any other team, packed houses, night-game thrills and regular renditions of the best song in world football are possibly not things to be ashamed about and indeed might be said to have added a little bit to the drama and colour and, yes, new clean-sheet records of the Premiership in 2017-18 … what exactly is Lenny’s beef?
He faces a summer of rebuilding, same as every other manager. Maybe he knows how much money he’s getting and it’s not going to be enough. Maybe it would always struggle to be enough to replace Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn. To be fair to Lennon, there are doubts over no fewer than six strikers/creatives being at Easter Road next term. No other club is having to contemplate that amount of forward-position surgery.
To see it from the club’s point of view, if they’re being caw-canny over the budget (a long-established Hibee tradition), two of these players were mid-term replacements for Lennon buys which very quickly weren’t working (Anthony Stokes and Simon Murray), while another loan player, Scott Allan, has pushed another underwhelming Lennon purchase (Danny Swanson) further down the pecking order.
The club might be saying: how much should we give this manager based on his deals so far? But they should quite clearly be asking a big question of themselves: crikey, the guy’s intense, committed and fiercely driven, much more so than some we’ve hired in the last few years, so if we’re as serious as he seems to be about moving the club forward rather than just doing enough to remain in the top flight while reminiscing about 21.5.16, should we in the port of Leith be pushing the boat out for him?
Lennon’s Hibs, I think everyone beyond Gorgie would agree, are back as a force in the game. I must admit they play more football than I thought they would under him. Much of that is down to the legacy left by Alan Stubbs, some of whom are about to move on, although it should be said that others like Martin Boyle and Marvin Bartley who were not automatic picks under Stubbs have been emboldened and improved by him. Lennon, if he stays, must find his own McGeouch and maybe his own McGinn, too. A tall order, but I’m not aware of him shirking too much in his life thus far. The Hibee Nation will be hoping he remains in the dugout or, when required, the naughty seat in the stand. They’ve pretty much bought their season tickets with that proviso.