There will be one familiar element when Hibernian embark on their Europa League qualifying campaign on 12 July. Neil Lennon will be restricted to watching his team from the stand – a hangover from the four-match Uefa ban received for remonstrating with a referee when he took charge of the club for the first time as they faced Brondby in the competition two years ago. “Feck, I’d forgotten about that,” said the Hibs manager yesterday when reminded of the punishment. “I’ll just have to deal with it…my staff are well used to it by now.”
Hibs’ shot at Europe through finishing fourth in the Premiership was confirmed courtesy of Celtic winning the Scottish Cup last Saturday. Lennon believes no-one could begrudge his club the opportunity following an outstanding first season back in the top flight following a three-year exile.
And the Irishman refuses to consider that his team should expect to suffer the fate that typically seems to befall Scottish clubs in the qualifiers of the competition. The aforementioned Brondby tie, wherein his team won 1-0 in the Danish second leg after losing the first by the same margin at Easter Road before being edged out on penalties, is what gives him grounds for optimism.
But it will be tough, with four rounds now required to be negotiated to reach the group stage, when a mere one or two rounds has tended to see off Scottish entrants.
“It’s brilliant to have European football,” Lennon said. “It was obviously out of our hands until we knew the result of the Scottish Cup final but I think we deserved it. We’ve earned the right to have a crack at it and it’s an exciting aspect of the season ahead. It gets the fans’ juices going already despite this season having just finished.
“But it’s also an added dimension for the players. When we got knocked out by Brondby last season it was very early days in my rein and I felt if the tie had been two or three weeks later we could have come through it. It surprised me and I felt after that tie we had a decent team. To go to Brondby and win and unfortunately lose on penalty kicks was a respectable result.
“It’s difficult because you’re back so early and you could get a team who are midway through the season – and I’ve had that with Celtic – but we’re in it to try to qualify. It’s a financial boost for the club.”
Lennon is wary of making predictions about how his team will fare domestically next season after they fell just short of making good on his bold statement that second place was their target.
He seems pretty sure of one thing, though: that he will also begin the season with a Scottish touchline ban after running on to the pitch and jigging around with aeroplane-style arms to celebrate Hibs’ added-time equaliser in the 5-5 draw at home to Rangers on the final afternoon of the league season.
Sent off for the reaction by referee Bobby Madden, Lennon knows full well the two-matches suspended that came with a three-game ban he was given for going berserk in the face of Kevin Clancy at Kilmarnock three months ago will now be activated.
“I expected the SFA charge after the last game of the season because them’s the rules,” he said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. It was a spontaneous moment. A bit of fun. The last kick of a very good season so nobody should look too much into it. I moved so quickly I pulled my hamstring…”
Until Lennon can assess any summer squad changes that take place in the next few months, he will reserve judgement on what could be reasonably expected of Hibs in the next 12 months. “The aim is for more of the same next season. If I make a prediction now and we do it then I’m a genius and if not I’m an idiot,” he said.
“I felt we were good enough to finish second and we nearly were. I haven’t got a squad together so I might be clearer on targets at the start of the season.”
l Neil Lennon was speaking at the SPFL Trust’s Annual Golf Day at The Carrick at Loch London. 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.