The first thing Hibernian fans will do when the fixtures for their return to the Premiership are published is find out when they can next have a crack at their dearly beloved Edinburgh rivals. Hearts supporters will do likewise, it’s the nature of the rivalry, and Neil Lennon knows all about derby fervour.
But in the wake of his team achieving promotion, the manager admitted the cup clashes back in February had disrupted the league campaign, leading to a dire display which caused him to explode.
“The Hearts game was a huge distraction, no question, because everyone was talking about it and both clubs were obsessed by it,” Lennon said.
“In the build-up to it and the replay there was no doubt our form dipped in the league. They raised their game for Hearts but then at Raith Rovers they were shambolic. I called them out publicly and people were saying ‘What’s he doing that for’?
“But it’s my job to do that, whether the players like it or not. We’d set standards which they’d fallen far below. But then they hammered Hearts here.”
Over the whole campaign, though, the players had been “brilliant”. Some of the performances had been exceptional. “When they’ve put their minds to it they’ve been exhilarating. I’ve enjoyed working with them … most of the time!”
When he arrived at Easter Road last summer, Lennon was immediately critical of the club culture in previous years and identified the need for more mental toughness even in the Scottish Cup winners he’d inherited. “I thought we were a bit soft,” he said.
“I used the term ‘boyband’ because I thought we played nice football, were easy on the eye, but kept losing – and losing in games we shouldn’t. I wanted them to go to Queen of the South and Dumbarton and dig out results.
“The big games at a club like this take care of themselves – it was the other games that mattered. And if we couldn’t win, I didn’t want them to lose. We did have a few more draws than I’d have liked but every point turned out to be important. I think these players need Premiership football – it’ll showcase them at their best. It’s been difficult at times this season when teams have camped in at Easter Road. Next season will be different. The games will be more open, they’ll be against better quality players and I think that’ll suit Hibs.” Lennon’s favourite performances were the two wins over Dundee United and when they mastered Falkirk who had the Indian sign over Hibs previously. “We wanted to flip it, to show we were mentally the stronger team. To me, that’s a good sign going forward.”
Attendances at Easter Road have been 15,000-plus for a while now – can that be maintained?
“That depends on us winning. The more successful you are, the more the crowds will come.
“Off the back of the cup there’s been a sense of pride, a feelgood factor. Can we keep the crowds if we’re mid-table next season?
“It can be difficult with affordability but the potential is huge. I’m very excited.”