Seething, Neil Lennon knew he should probably rein in his feelings but, on a night when disappointment was so raw, and his Gorgie counterpart Craig Levein and the Hearts fans had succeeded in getting under his skin, the Hibernian manager was unable to do it.
“Maybe I am a bit over-emotional at the minute,” he acknowledged, after his side lost out 2-1 to capital rivals Hearts, “but fourth isn’t good enough.”
The sting of derby defeat was magnified by the fact that the outcome had cost his Leith side a shot at second place and made it almost impossible to even clinch third. They will go into Sunday’s final league game guaranteed at least fourth but will have to rely on Celtic beating Motherwell in the Scottish Cup to see that converted into a place in next season’s Europa League qualifiers. That situation was deemed unpalatable by the Easter Road boss. “It’s not good enough… it’s not acceptable.”
A born winner and very sore loser, he lambasted players he has spent most of the season praising. Describing them as “outstanding” only days earlier, on Wednesday night they were rebranded as “amateur” and “unprofessional” by a manager pondering whether there was any point in him sticking around for a fresh campaign.
“I will consider my position over the summer. I have my own personal aims and ambitions. I can’t watch that in derbies. It’s not good enough,” he said. “Maybe it is a rash thing to say but I think about it every summer and ask: ‘Is this the right thing to do?’
“I don’t know. We’ve a board meeting next week so we’ll see. Nothing lasts forever. I have been here two years, made great strides, but I’ve got to think about myself. Maybe I’m a bit over emotional but fourth isn’t good enough. We had good chances but didn’t have the gumption or stomach to make the difference.”
In the cold light of day, those close to Lennon believe he will want to play down his stormy post-match mutterings and perhaps he should. This, after all, was the man who wrapped up a successful season in the Championship by saying his men were now ready to aim for a top-six finish on their return to the top tier. But, for so long, their first season back in the Premiership promised so much more and while they can no longer break into the highest echelons, fourth place still surpasses his pre-season targets.
This summer is massive, though, as he faces the prospect of losing key players and, consequently, a tough rebuilding operation. Hibs’ Player of the Year, Dylan McGeouch, is out of contract and set to leave, while loan stars Brandon Barker, Scott Allan, Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren are all due to head back to their parent clubs, decimating the forward areas of Lennon’s team.
He also knows that Hibs will be lucky to make it through another transfer window minus another tempting offer for John McGinn, pictured.
A team that has produced some of the best football on display and exceeded most pre-season expectations, vying with and bettering teams who have budgets at least 50 per cent higher than their own, changes on such a scale will be daunting. But most inside the club are buoyed by a campaign that could yet reap a record points haul.
Lennon’s outburst let the Hibs fans know he was sharing their hurt and his comments will have unsettled them. Some of the 10,000-plus who have already renewed their season tickets will wonder what they have signed up for, others see his revelation as a shrewd manouvre by a man seeking to soften up the board before spending budgets are rubber stamped at next week’s board meeting.
Those close to him, though, see it simply as a man who loves to win letting off steam after he had piled the pressure on himself in recent weeks and the chances of finishing second became more realistic.
Only he will know. But this afternoon’s press conference could offer a clearer indication. After some reflection he may join others at Hibs in being thrilled with the advances made and confident in their own recruitment record to believe there is more to come.
He may not and that will disappoint the Hibs hierarchy, but having lost a Scottish Cup-winning manager so soon after that success and found a quality replacement, if the man who has exceeded expectations in the league does decide enough is enough, they will not succumb to emotions, but will coolly move on.