Neil Lennon: As a player Steven Gerrard was one of my heroes

Neil Lennon earned headlines for his aeroplane celebration while marking Jamie Maclaren's late equaliser in a ten-goal thriller the last time Hibs hosted Rangers.

It’s been a wait of fully seven months for the follow-up to that astonishing match, more’s the pity. Inevitably, several of those involved have moved on, while others have arrived. With passions now having settled, it seems Lennon’s most provocative gesture this evening at Easter Road could be bowing down in front of the away dug-out. Despite being nearly ten years older than the Rangers manager, Lennon has described Steven Gerrard as “one of my heroes”.

This is something you hear often from opposition players set to come up against Gerrard for the first time. It’s less common for a manager to pay homage to an opposite number – particularly when this opposite number now wears a Rangers badge and the acclaim is coming from Lennon.

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But the Hibs manager has always been happy to give praise when it’s deserved. Gerrard was an exceptional player who is now making his mark in what Lennon knows as well as anybody is a demanding role. Why shouldn’t he praise Gerrard and offer the usual courtesy of a drink afterwards to the Rangers manager? 
Lennon sounds particularly keen to pull up a chair next to Gerrard.

Hibernian manager Neil Lennon

“There is obviously a great respect there from the players,” observed Lennon. “As a player, well, first and foremost, he’s one of my heroes! As a manager now, he’s getting the best out of that group of players, which augurs well for the future.”

Lennon was clearly relishing the prospect of finally being able to welcome Gerrard to Scottish football in person. It’s been an unusually long wait for the teams to clash this season because their scheduled first meeting in October was postponed due to Rangers’ involvement in the Betfred Cup semi-finals.

Lennon’s Leicester City days were coming to an end when Gerrard was establishing himself in the Liverpool side in the late 1990s. He has more vivid memories of playing against him for Celtic against Liverpool en route to the 2003 Uefa Cup final in Seville.

“We won that tie, particularly the Anfield game,” he recalled. “But you were always wary of him because, at any moment, he could have scored a goal. I’ve never seen anyone carry a club like Liverpool the way he did.

“I mean, a big player in the big games, his record at Liverpool was outstanding, his will to win was outstanding. I’ve met him personally a few times away from the game and I just think he’s a great lad. I don’t want him to win tomorrow night, obviously, but I’m a huge fan of him.”

Lennon admits he was surprised when Gerrard accepted the post at Rangers. Unlike when he took over at Celtic following Tony Mowbray’s departure, Gerrard had no previous ties to the Ibrox club. He was coming in blind to an extent. He had a lot to lose.

“It’s a very, very difficult job,” said Lennon. “A big job. And he wasn’t ingrained in the culture of the club.

“He’s a big name himself – and it was a gamble. But he’s obviously got a good level of self-belief and he’s making a great fist of it so far.

“It’s a very difficult first job, in particular. Especially coming from the outside in. If it doesn’t go well, where does he go from there? But I think he’s handled it brilliantly. I had it at Celtic but I had knowledge of the players, I knew the culture of the club.

“Steven didn’t have that but he’s handled himself very well, media-wise in 
particular. He’s been impeccable in the media.”

According to Lennon, no one could have asked for any more from Gerrard in his first season as a manager. As well as negotiating an arduous qualifying campaign to reach the Europa League group stage, Rangers visit Easter Road tonight as league leaders. It makes for another tough assignment for Lennon’s men following Sunday’s 2-0 win over Celtic.

Hibs have been boosted by news that winger Martin Boyle, left, is set to return. Midfielder Vykintas Slivka, meanwhile, will undergo a fitness test today – news to allay fears he might miss the busy festive schedule following a crude tackle by Scott Brown at the weekend. The Hibs manager is expecting fewer thrills than was the case when the teams last met in May.

“I wouldn’t put money on it and I wouldn’t put money on seeing the aeroplane celebration either!” said Lennon, who was handed a one-match touchline ban for his antics.

“I think they [Rangers] are a bit more pragmatic than Celtic,” he added. “They’re maybe not as free-flowing as Celtic.

‘They do counter-attack well, they are rigid in their set-up, they’ve got good pace and good athleticism.

“They’ve got a bit more steel this year, I think, hence the results. Defensively, in Europe, they were in the main pretty good and they don’t give much away. So this may be a bit cat and mouse at times.”