From yet another mid-season lay-off to the high intensity demands of an Edinburgh derby, Hibernian manager Neil Lennon is clear on which situation excites him most.
Having made it clear that he is far from happy with the stop-start nature of the Leith club’s season so far, the man who will take his team across the city tonight looking for a better result than he enjoyed there last term is delighted to get back to action following the latest enforced break.
While Hearts had a midweek trip to Dundee last week and then contested a Betfred Cup semi-final at the weekend, Lennon and his troops have been kicking their heels.
“I’m looking forward to a game because rigor mortis is setting in! It’s just absolutely ridiculous the month we’ve had,” he said. “We’ve had no fluency or consistency in terms of game time and that’s difficult to manage, believe it or not. The Hamilton game came off the back of a great run, then we had the two-week break, then we had Celtic, and then we had another break. It’s been very difficult – you can’t get any match fitness out of that – to keep the players bubbling over.”
He is also frustrated that tonight’s clash is the fourth away game out of five but he concedes that it is a juicy one to return to and offers his players the perfect incentive to get back up and running quickly.
“We know what all the teams are about, but this just happens to be a derby under the lights. Any time when you’ve got that fixture to look forward to, it’s mouthwatering.”
It will be the first taste of the fixture for players such as Daryl Horgan, who has watched several on television but expects the live experience to be even more enjoyable. But Lennon hopes that all his men will rise to meet his lofty expectations, whether they are newbies or old hands.
In the wake of the defeat at the end of last season, the heart-on-his-sleeve manager slammed his players as “unprofessional” and “amateur” as many struggled to find their footing or steal a march on their hosts, and he does not expect to indulge in a similar outburst following this head to head.
“I don’t think they need reminded of that,” he stated. “For players to be slipping over – not just one, there was three or four – because of the wrong footwear, it’s unacceptable in a game as important as that.
“Once they slip over the first time they’re uncomfortable then, and they’re not fully concentrated because they’re worried about slipping over again. It’s just a bugbear of mine. I see a lot of senior players doing it as well, Premier League players doing it and it costs goals, it costs points and it costs big moments. It’s just that little bit of extra preparation for an important game – any game for that matter.”
Horgan agrees that there is no room for slippage as they try to reel in the league leaders, literally or figuratively, charging his colleagues to keep their cool, regardless what is thrown at them by the Hearts players or fans.
Out on the wing, the Irishman, who joined from Preston North End in August, knows he will be in the firing line of the boisterous home supporters, but says the good thing about being new to the country and the league is the fact that he is not fully attuned to the local dialect. “You try not to listen to them,” he said. “Thankfully, the Scottish accent is very thick, so I don’t always know what they are saying but you do understand the tone.”
A derby debutant, watching past games on television means he is aware that the tight Tynecastle pitch poses more problems than the close proximity of the fans.
“Because the pitch is tight everything condenses so much in the midfield and, if you are used to free-flowing football where you can open up and spray passes, it makes things more difficult because every time you get the ball and want to turn, there will be a body coming at you, again and again and again,” he added. “So that will make it difficult. They are used to that. It is their home patch and they have adapted to that, but we will have to get to grips with that very, very early. It will be tricky for us but we will have to adapt to the conditions. It might take us 10-15 minutes to bed in, though, and it might be quite scrappy until the game settles down.”