Hibs’ Neil Lennon relishes returning to face Rangers at Ibrox

Neil Lennon is confident his Hibs side can thrive in the red-hot atmosphere of Ibrox. Picture: SNS/Bill Murray
Neil Lennon is confident his Hibs side can thrive in the red-hot atmosphere of Ibrox. Picture: SNS/Bill Murray
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Absence makes the heart grow fonder and if Neil Lennon always relished the trips to Ibrox as a player and a manager at Celtic, the fact he has been deprived head to heads at the Govan ground for the past few years has only heightened his desire to return.

He will do that this afternoon when he takes his newly-promoted Hibernian squad to the scene of so many emotive encounters, admitting that he has missed the arena and the atmosphere generated.

“Who wouldn’t? You miss the drama and the intensity and the theatre of it,” he said. “That’s what it really is, it is theatre. It’s sport, it’s entertainment. There is a darker side to it sometimes but hopefully that can be kept within the confines of the game.

“I enjoy it. Yes, there can be some venomous things said, but there can also be a lot of humour. You can’t take yourself too seriously there. You hear some quips from the crowd. You try to put on a straight face but sometimes you can’t help but snap. You’ve just got to try to keep your emotions in check but you are human beings at the end of the day. It is the mock outrage you see – ‘he said that!’ – if you retort. They go running to the stewards.

“But I enjoy it. I enjoy getting off the bus. I enjoy walking out on to the pitch. I enjoy winning there – when you win it is a great feeling. So I want my players to go and enjoy that experience as well.”

He is backing his men to surprise those who feel Rangers have made signings that again render them one of the major threats. He has watched Pedro Caixinha’s side and believes his men are equal to anything the home side might throw at them.

“Of course we’re going there with optimism,” he added. “Absolutely. We have a great chance. We’re not just going there to make up the numbers. We want Hibs to be a force, not just this season but in years to come. It’s a difficult fixture, a difficult venue to visit, but we’re playing well – and we’ve nothing to fear.”

In the past there have been highs, lows, controversies and caustic welcomes, as well as the odd premature departure. His last match there, as Celtic manager, in March 2012, ended with a 3-2 win for the home side, while his side edged the red card count two to one. He says that day counts as one of the craziest at the ground as he was barred from returning to the technical area after half-time.

“It was a piece of nonsense, me getting sent off – we went to Hampden and it was thrown out in five minutes. But I ended up watching the [second half of the] game in a wee room on the telly. I was sent off because the official said I was using foul and abusive language so I watched the game in the media room. Well, I couldn’t go up to the stand, could I?

“There have been a few surreal things happen to me there over the years – going out on the pitch with Martin [O’Neill], being sent off after the game by Stuart Dougal; that really
pleased Gordon Strachan, that! I’ve had great occasions there. Beach Ball Sunday, that kind of thing. It’s all been part of the drama. But this is different, I’m going there with Hibs.”

Lennon is no longer heading there for a traditional derby but there is some needle. The fixture developed into a grudge match during the respective sides’ stay in the second tier of the Scottish game and the antipathy increased after Hibs stunned the Glasgow side by defeating them in the 2016 Scottish Cup final.

That result has helped banish any trepidation, as have their performances against other Premiership sides in recent seasons, with Lennon keen to crank up the pressure on the hosts.

“What you want to do is make them nervous. Because they can get nervous in front of their own fans,” he said. “What you don’t want – and this is a bit rich coming from me – is anyone getting over-emotional. You’ve got to stay cold and concentrate on the game.

“It is harder to stay calm on the touchline than when you’re playing. Out on the pitch, you can put in a tackle. Sometimes you need to take a deep breath on the touchline. As you get older, you do learn to temper it, maybe mellow a bit. I know the parameters in which I’m allowed to work. I know I can’t get too emotional. And I’m sure I won’t.”