John Hartson: Craig Levein and Neil Lennon spat just verbal sparring

Kevin McGee, landlord of the Athletic Arms, is presented with a BT Sport award by Hearts captain Christophe Berra and John Hartson.
Kevin McGee, landlord of the Athletic Arms, is presented with a BT Sport award by Hearts captain Christophe Berra and John Hartson.
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John Hartson says that the recent spat between Hearts manager Craig Levein and Hibernian counterpart Neil Lennon is no different to the verbal sparring boxers indulge in throughout the build-up to a big fight.

“Tony Bellew is the best at it and I love that,” said the former Celtic striker .“Then after the fight they’re hugging and kissing each other and saying they’ve got to do it all over again! It’s all about the build-up. It’s all about the headlines.”

The row broke out in the wake of Hearts’ derby victory over their city rivals when Levein said that he was out to restore the “natural order”. That comment was considered derogatory by the Easter Road boss and Hartson knows that a slighted Lennon is never one to back down.

“You’ve got two fiery managers saying things and winding each other up – certainly Craig has wound Neil up – but that can only be good. I don’t know about him holding a grudge, but Neil can hold his own.”

The former Wales international and BT Sport pundit joined Hearts captain Christophe Berra at the Athletic Arms pub – known locally as The Diggers – to present licensee Kevin McGhee with a BT Sport award for forging close ties with nearby Hearts, despite being a Hibs fan.

The award proves that the capital rivalry can be good-natured, with the landlord admitting he was on the end of some light-hearted ribbing from his regulars in the wake of Sunday’s match and Hartson
believes that Levein’s comments were also in jest. But he says he is not surprised by his friend Lennon’s unwillingness to laugh off the post-match jibe and says it has nothing to do with feeling the heat of Hearts attempting to chase them down in the league or ousting them from the Scottish Cup

“He has a great record against Hearts, that was Hibs’ first defeat in ten. So I think it was a bit rich of Craig to come out with that. He’s entitled to his opinion and it was more tongue in cheek but Neil has obviously bitten,” said Hartson. “I always feel if you manage at Celtic and you’re successful you can handle anything. There’s also big pressure at Hibs, especially in the derby games. But, listen, he’s my mate, I sat next to him for five years, he was my captain.

“He did well bringing Hibs up [from the Championship] after people tried before him and failed and he’s had some fabulous results this season, winning at Ibrox and drawing at Celtic Park So although he has lost a derby game let’s not forget how well he has done.

“Look at the Anthony Stokes stuff. It shows that when Neil has to be strict he will be. There’s no laughing and joking with him, it is a serious business managing a top club but I know he is really enjoying it because I speak to him a lot.

“He has taken the bait this time but he has to stand up for himself, he’s nobody’s fool and he was probably thinking: ‘How dare he…’ He probably couldn’t believe the audacity. But Craig knew what he was doing, he said it to try and get a bite and he got it. It’s a bit like Mourinho and Fergie in their heyday, it’s all mind games.”