The heart-on-his-sleeve approach to management was exhibited to the max by Neil Lennon in the aftermath of his Hibernian side losing to Hearts the other week. The Easter Road manager insists that his outburst did not lead to his board requiring to have a heart-to-heart with him.
With the close season now upon us, Lennon can relax for the next three weeks ahead of reassembling his squad to begin preparations for their Europa League qualifiers. He knows, though, that – as he did when defeat by Hearts put paid to hopes of Hibs finishing runners-up in the Premiership – in the heat of battle next season, his nature means his emotions will sometime come pouring out.
That night at Tynecastle, he questioned whether he had the appetite to stay on at the club, questioned his players’ professionalism and questioned whether the ambition would be shown to move the club in the right direction. He says there were no questions asked of him by Hibs chief executive Leeann Dempster or club chairman Rod Petrie as a result of this outburst, nor indeed his propensity to earn touchline bans in recent months.
“There wasn’t a problem with the board post-Hearts, not really,” Lennon said. “It was just my own personal frustrations being let out because we’d blown any chance of second place. There’s no question we’ve got a bit of work to do on the squad but I know the nucleus will still be there. The club are doing what they can to bring the loan players back on a permanent basis. We’ll need to freshen it up in the summer.
“I think Leeann and Rod know what to expect from me now, they know what I’m like. They probably just roll their eyes now. Especially at that time of the season when I’m tired and winding down. I get a bit cranky.
“I said I was considering my own position. But there hasn’t been a season gone by when I haven’t done that. In the four years I had at Celtic, certainly the year I had at Bolton and also last year at Hibs – I looked at my own position – you always do. I probably just never said it publicly before. You always take stock, see how you’re feeling yourself. You need time to rest and recuperate. I have to re-energise myself.
“Is it cathartic or do I wish I hadn’t done it? Probably a bit of both. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t have said it. But other times, when it’s building and building, I need to let off a bit of steam. It’s not all about me. That’s the crux of it, I shouldn’t be talking about myself publicly when I have my own thoughts and values – not just on my profession – but on my life.
“I appreciate what I’ve got at Hibs. You won’t get many better jobs than the one I’ve got, in terms of enjoyment and comfort. There’s no real pressure. I’m left to get on with the football side while in the background the club ticks along nicely. The fact we’ve got European football will bring in finances and hopefully we’ll get decent gates if we negotiate the first round. And it gives me something to get my teeth into as a manager. There’s excitement there already.”
Lennon puts himself under pressure by constantly striving for outcomes that are at the upper end of what might be considered achievable. That extends to the summer Europa League qualifiers. Hibs would have to negotiate four rounds to make it to the group stages but the Hibs manager says his team are targeting that “absolutely”.
No Scottish club has ever been able to overcome those four sets of qualifiers in Europe’s second-tier tournament. The fact that Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers have made it to the Europa League group stages, though, means Lennon refuses to accept that Scottish teams outside of Celtic should give up to having European football right up until Christmas.
“When you see some of the clubs who are in it – it’s tough but not insurmountable,” he said. “It’s not impossible but the timing makes it hard. A lot of teams are already well up to speed. We’re back in on 18 June and hopefully the main business will be done by then. The Irish clubs did it on a summer season, they caught a few teams cold. There’s no doubt it’s an advantage.
“If it was September we’d be rubbing our hands because five or six games into the league season, you’re bang at it. Because it’s early, it’s difficult and you’re going to all corners of Europe in different weather and time zones. You have to acclimatise very quickly and it’s interesting for a manager.
“My team surprised me against Brondby two years ago when we beat them [away]. I knew I had a right good group then. Unfortunately we went out on penalties but they were a very good side. Hopefully that experience will stand us in good stead this year.”
◆ Neil Lennon was speaking at the SPFL Trust’s Annual Golf Day at The Carrick. All proceeds raised will be used towards mental health first aid training in Scottish football in partnership with the Chris Mitchell Foundation. For more information visit www.spfltrust.org.uk.