Although hugely satisfied with the recruitment process he’s overseen at Hibs this summer, head coach Neil Lennon insists he isn’t fond of others predicting great things from his team.
Lennon has spent the past few months assembling a squad that he feels is equipped to compete in the Premiership following a three-year exodus from Scottish football’s top flight.
Lennon has brought in no fewer than eight new players to complement the nucleus of last season’s squad, who were deservedly crowned Championship winners in May.
Anthony Stokes has returned for a third spell with the Leith side and joins Ofir Marciano, Steven Whittaker, Efe Ambrose, Danny Swanson, Simon Murray, and Lithuanian duo Vykintas Slivka and Deivydas Matulevicius in committing their futures to the Capital club.
Hibs’ top goalscorer for the past three seasons, Jason Cummings, has moved on to pastures new with former Rangers boss Mark Warburton at Nottingham Forest, while James Keatings, who was offered a new deal, elected to remain in the Championship signing for Dundee United. Veteran striker Grant Holt has also departed along with midfielder Fraser Fyvie.
Lennon came in for some criticism last season as, despite losing to Aberdeen, who finished runners-up in the Premiership to champions Celtic, in April’s Scottish Cup semi-final, the former Parkhead boss insisted Hibs were the second best team in the country at that time.
However, with further reinforcements to his squad this season, Lennon believes his players will be a force to be reckoned with.
Asked if he is content to hear so many tipping the Easter Road club to make a real impact this season, he said: “I don’t like it! I don’t like being tipped to do well, I don’t like making predictions. I think there is a three-tier division where you have Celtic, then there is Aberdeen and Rangers and then the rest. I want us to break into that second bracket and compete. I have players here with vast experience of the Scottish, British and European game and that pleases me.
“We have multiple title winners in there as well, who have been over the course and distance, and international players, so I think we have recruited well but the proof will be in the pudding. I am quietly confident, though, that we can have a good season.
“Everyone says ‘oh, he said Hibs were the second best team last year’ but at the time, after the semi-final, I felt we were as good as Aberdeen. We were in great form and playing very well. But that was then and this is now.
“We have brought some good players to the club and there is a real feelgood factor. We have done some very good business, and credit goes to Leeann [Dempster] and George [Craig] and the recruitment team who have worked tirelessly over the last few weeks. We could be a little outside bet to give a few bloody noses along the way.”
Lennon’s remit upon arriving last June was to lead the club back to the Premiership having endured two failed attempts under predecessor Alan Stubbs. Lennon admitted the euphoria etched on the faces of chief executive Dempster and the rest of the club’s board when promotion was finally secured with victory over Queen of the South in April, was a massive weight off his shoulders.
“We had to do a lot of hard work last year,” he explained. “The priority was promotion and we achieved that but it wasn’t easy. Seeing what it meant to so many people in the background… other than the Scottish Cup win it was three years in purgatory.
“When I saw Leeann and George after the game against Queen of the South and the colour was coming back into their faces because there was a lot of pressure. I knew that coming into the job but I came here because it is a big club. It is a big city club, with great tradition and I like that. The structure of the club is excellent and it has been very, very enjoyable to work here, so far. Now my job is to win games and I think I have players here who can do that.”
In the midst of all the excitement as Hibs prepare for the first Premiership fixture in more than three years when Partick Thistle are the visitors to Easter Road this afternoon, Lennon accepts his players must rise to the occasion against their very able opponents.
“It could all go flat if we lose this afternoon to a very good Partick Thistle team,” he said. “But there is no question that the players are ready and can handle the step up to the Premiership because we have Premiership players here.
“I know we probably won’t win every game, every week or be expected to win every game every week, but there is still a good expectation here now and rightly so. We will get good crowds and the atmosphere at Easter Road will be tremendous and hopefully we can all thrive off that. I have enjoyed what I have seen so far, from the players competitively over pre-season. We are injury free which is great.
“There is no such thing as a perfect manager. The modern day supporter is looking for the perfect team, the perfect player, perfect manager but there is no such thing. You try to get as many aspects of your job right as you can.”