When Hibs manager Neil Lennon first revealed his hopes of claiming runners-up spot in the Premiership this season, Chris Sutton admits he thought his old team-mate had temporarily lost his marbles.
But, as the post-split fixtures get set to begin this weekend, with Hibs just three points adrift of both Rangers and Aberdeen in the race to finish best of the rest behind Celtic, BT Sport pundit Sutton believes Lennon could be set to lead the Easter Road club into second spot in the top flight for the first time since 1975.
To do so as a newly promoted team would make the feat all the more laudable for Lennon who, according to Sutton, will have relished the abject displays produced by both Aberdeen and Rangers in their respective Scottish Cup semi-final defeats last weekend.
“Neil was on a BT Sport panel beside me a year ago and was asked about his realistic aims and he said second place,” recalls Sutton. “I was laughing inside when he said it. I thought it was absolute madness.
“But they are a team which has come in and over-achieved. You can look at what’s gone wrong at Rangers and Aberdeen, but Neil will be focusing on Hibs and, if they did it, it would be a remarkable achievement to finish above Aberdeen and Rangers.
“They are three points off it and it is there for them. There have been times when there has been frustration about performances and results, but for them to be in the mix is a big achievement. Hibs are on a good run and Neil will be looking at what happened with Aberdeen and Rangers and thinking about second.”
Sutton is dismissive of any suggestion former Celtic captain and manager Lennon would have any degree of mixed feelings about Saturday’s visit to Easter Road of the champions who need just one more win to wrap up their seventh consecutive league title.
“I wouldn’t say it was his worst-case scenario,” added Sutton. “But having played with Neil, I know he is a fierce competitor and he will not be caring one jot about Celtic on Saturday.
“It makes Saturday’s game really interesting as, if Hibs win, it gives them a real opportunity for second place. Neil will be thinking about getting his team organised and giving Celtic a good game.
“To be fair to Hibs, they have given Celtic some tough games this season and really gone at them. Maybe he’d have learned lessons from how Rangers approached the semi-final last weekend and understand that you have to be really positive against Celtic.
“Look at the goals Celtic have conceded in the league – they are strong at the back but we’ve all seen Celtic and we’d all agree that there’s a vulnerability about Celtic at the back. That is their Achilles heel. There is no point sitting in and letting the superior players Celtic have dictate the game to you. At home, the onus is on Hibs and he’ll have a go. That’s the right way to do it.”
After a difficult spell in charge of Bolton Wanderers, Lennon has restored his managerial reputation at Hibs. So much so that Sutton believes he would be a contender to return to Celtic as a replacement for Brendan Rodgers should the current Parkhead boss be tempted back to the English Premier League.
“The interesting thing from Brendan’s point of view is that if he wins the double -treble – and it would be an unbelievable achievement and never been done before – the pressure will be on him in Europe next season,” observed Sutton.
“We’ve all seen the European performances from Celtic this season. Does he see this squad competing in the Champions League with four qualifiers next season? In England there are people who are being disrespectful about Scottish football and Celtic and saying it’s a load of rubbish and anyone could do what Brendan is doing. They are asking if he should be given a chance if a big gun comes in. Arsenal have been mentioned and he is reportedly on a four-man shortlist for the Chelsea job.
“I think he would be well courted this summer, so, if it left an opportunity at Celtic, who would be the next fit? I don’t know the relationship between Neil Lennon and Peter Lawwell after he left.
“But, in terms of the job he has done at Hibs, the affection he’s held in by the Celtic support and the fact he’s really maturing as a coach, then he’d be well up there in the pecking order if Brendan ended up leaving.
“Neil wants to build something at Hibs, but I know him well and, if he doesn’t feel he can get the backing and is standing still, then I don’t think he’ll want to hang around at Hibs too long.
“But, at the moment, he seems happy because he has got the backing. He has done a good job, but ,as a manager and competitor, he will want to better himself in terms of performance levels.
“If he takes Hibs to second place, it will be tough to do that again and he’ll be working out how he can do that again next season.”
l BT Sport has six post-split SPFL games in four weeks, kicking off with Hibs v Celtic on Saturday 21 April from 12pm on BT Sport 1. BT Sport is where the best go head to head, bringing you live coverage of the Ladbrokes Premiership and Betfred League Cup. For more information, visit www.BT.com/sport