Before the final whistle had even sounded on Saturday at Dens Park, clips of John McGinn leaning back to connect with a volley that many claim has made goal of the season competitions redundant were circulating on social media.
Neil Lennon caught up with them eventually. Such was Hibs’ dominance in the second half against Dundee he could have gone online himself during Hibs’ 3-0 win and enjoyed them.
Perhaps enjoyed is the wrong word. “He never f*cking did that for me!” he exclaimed yesterday when asked about the Aston Villa midfielder’s stylish, bending strike against Sheffield Wednesday. Some have even compared the goal to Zinedine Zidane’s Champions League winner for Real Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park 16 years ago.
Lennon grinned the goal was clearly a “fluke” before agreeing it was “an outrageous piece of individual skill”, adding: “I’m delighted for John, really pleased. But he has gone now. We are grateful for his time here, we are very proud and I hope he goes on to do great things in his career.
“That’s just a little cameo of what he can do and what he can achieve. He should be a really great inspiration for players here at Hibs, whether it be young players or players in the team. This is a place where you can come and prosper and go on.”
This message is a further gift to Hibs from McGinn, whose transfer saw Hibs pocket over £2 million. Lennon then engaged with the more serious issue underlined by McGinn’s headline-making weekend: how can you replace someone capable of such sorcery?
Well, you don’t. But Lennon is trying his best. Most would say he’s done pretty well so far. Hibs sit third in the league having spent much of the weekend in second place, which Lennon relished. “I know it is only fleeting but psychologically it is good for you,” he said.
Somehow, despite the personnel changes and Lennon’s intention to switch to a 4-3-3 formation when possible, Hibs have carried on where they left off last season. A league table for the calendar year has Hibs on top. They have lost just twice in 13 domestic and European games this season. Lennon’s side also have the chance to reach Hampden tonight should they find a way past Aberdeen in their quarter-final Betfred Cup clash.
“In the second half of last season, we lost two games in 19, away to Celtic and Hearts,” reflected Lennon. “We won a lot of games in those 19 as well so I was pleased with the flow and balance of the team last year. This is a work in progress because we have had to rebuild a little bit. I have seen the foundations of it. I have seen good signs in the last couple of games.
“It’s not easy changing from a three [at the back] to a four,” he added. “It’s always good to be flexible but it’s not always ideal. It’s not always the way you want to play. You have to find a formation that suits the personnel that you have. Is it an improvement? Well, we are seeing signs of an improvement but it will be very difficult to top what we did last year.
“We had 67 points, our highest total in the league. We are ahead of schedule from where we were last year but there is no guarantee we will have that run again in the second half of the season. [But] I’m very, very pleased with the way we are playing at the minute.”
The only frustration for Lennon is a back injury to Jamie Maclaren that has turned out to be worse than feared. The Australian striker could be out until late October. Maclaren did not feature on Saturday at Dens Park and Hibs still scored three times. Indeed, Lennon described the second-half performance as being as good as there’s been from Hibs under him. Despite losing key men – Dylan McGeouch also joined McGinn in heading south in the summer – Hibs are remaining competitive enough to eye major honours. This is itself a minor triumph.
Daryl Horgan, a new signing who has done as much as anyone to negate the departure of star players, spoke yesterday about wishing to follow in the footsteps of compatriot Anthony Stokes, who he watched help Hibs lift the Scottish Cup three years ago. Stokes is another who’s gone as Hibs continue to evolve.
“It is impossible for us to replace John [McGinn],” said Lennon. “John is a £3m player so to replace him we would have to spend £3m and we just can’t do that. We know that. So we find other avenues and look to develop players. And as you are developing players try to win at the same time. That’s what we are trying to do. [Stephen] Mallan has made a good start. [Mark] Milligan has come in and looks good. [Thomas] Agyepong is starting to make good progress. [Martin] Boyle has been fantastic. [Florian] Kamberi is over his injury so that’s a big plus for us.”
All except Boyle are Lennon signings. He’s been at the club over three years now and is in the process of creating a new team while keeping the spirit of the old one alive. “It’s blossoming, but I know there will be a few bumps along the way,” he said.
“There is no complacency here, but I’m very pleased with what I’m seeing.”