Neil Lennon’s homework pays off in Hibs’ defeat of Celtic

Hibs' Jamie Maclaren opens the scoring on a day when everything went right for Neil Lennon. Picture: SNS.
Hibs' Jamie Maclaren opens the scoring on a day when everything went right for Neil Lennon. Picture: SNS.
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There have been more emphatic victories at Easter Road. There have been ones with greater significance. But whether there’s been a win in the last two decades or so that was the product of such endeavour as Saturday is surely debatable.

There was a frenzied quality about the way Hibernian went to work. The sunshine was only partly responsible for the sweat that poured from the 13 in Hibs shirts who took part. This is a group of players who would not know how to short-change their manager even if they wished to. Celtic, meanwhile, looked completely out of sorts in their pink-coloured jerseys of their third kit.

There’s a reason why Brendan Rodgers’ side have been added to a growing list of Hibs’ victims. From Florian Kamberi, the anti-Anthony Stokes when it comes to leaving everything on the pitch, to the ever-dependable Lewis Stevenson, they were happy to follow their manager’s instructions to the letter.

Neil Lennon later ranked the victory alongside ones as cherished as Barcelona with Celtic and over Rangers at Ibrox earlier this season. He also revealed he studied Rangers’ Scottish Cup semi-final performance six days earlier against Celtic and used it as an illustration of how not to approach the game.

He wanted to make clear he was not having fun at the expense of Rangers, and in particular Graeme Murty, who he likes and gets on well with. But Lennon would have been a fool, and also negligent, had he not worked out how Rangers got it so wrong at Hampden and then sought to do precisely the opposite.

Where Rangers had been timid, Hibs were ferocious. Where Rangers were ineffectual, such as in centre midfield against Olivier Ntcham and Scott Brown, Hibs ruled the roost there.

In addition, while Murty was given cause to query several players’ commitment levels, Lennon was blessed with willing workers all over the park. This was a classic case of players giving everything for their manager, whose own game management was impressive.

Vykintas Slivka came on for opening
goalscorer Jamie Maclaren and got what proved the important second goal with 11 minutes left. Celtic pulled one back through substitute Odsonne Edouard but it was the latest underwhelming performance in the league after drawing 0-0 with Dundee and a narrow 2-1 win over ten-man Hamilton Accies. Of course, their handsome victory over Rangers showed what they can do 
given the opportunity, hence Lennon’s decision to play on the front foot.

He noted the Ibrox side’s struggles. He would have been crazy not to. “Look, I am not going to criticise other teams,” said Lennon. “But it was something that was a feature of our preparation put it that way.”

Lennon opted for three at the back, matching Celtic. On Hibs’ right, to counteract Kieran Tierney’s attacking threat, they deployed wing back Martin Boyle and right centre-half Steven Whittaker. Danny Swanson buzzed around in midfield. On-loan pair Kamberi and Maclaren’s partnership up front continues to blossom.

John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch were as they have been for most of this season. However, handed a chance to give the champions-elect a bloody nose as well as enhance their own side’s chances of finishing runners-up, and with the spotlight firmly on the pair of much admired midfielders, they seemed that extra bit motivated.

Lennon revealed he had asked his players to go man for man. This takes guts as well as stamina. “Having looked at the game in December [when Hibs went 2-0 down before drawing 2-2] we were far too passive and let Celtic dominate the ball for far too long,” he explained. “We didn’t want to let that happen again.”

Lennon later claimed he hadn’t enjoyed the experience of beating Celtic
but had drawn immense pride from the occasion. He tried to refrain from answering the “hypothetical question” of how he would have felt had it stopped, not simply delayed, his old club winning the league. “That would have been both sides of Glasgow disliking me,” he smiled.

“You have to be professional,” he added.

Anyone who doubted he was likely to be anything less than that should have seen his reaction when the fourth assistant signalled how much additional time was to be played: Five minutes. Or when his goalkeeper Ofir Marciano, otherwise excellent, kicked the ball long to gift 
possession to Celtic when Efe Ambrose was standing just a short throw away.

Lennon is having one of the times of 
his life just now. Speculation linking Rodgers with a move to Arsenal is continuing so there might come calls for Lennon to be transplanted back in Celtic Park.

You do wonder what else he could achieve in a league context at Easter Road should he lead Hibs to second place this season. This could well happen on the form currently being shown by the Easter Road side, who have lost just once in 15 leagues games.

“That would be as good as anything I have done,” said Lennon.

“If we finish second how can we top that?” he added. “I do think Rangers will be strong next year because they have a bit of clout behind them and they may or may not bring in a new manager. So this may be as good as it gets for us for the short term anyway, but we will see.”

Finishing second, Hibs’ best position in over 40 years, would also give him some leverage when it comes to player recruitment – and retention. McGeouch is out of contract this summer and McGinn has a year to go. As for Lennon, he seems happy where he is.

“This is my job here now and I am really enjoying what I am doing and these players, the atmosphere and the environment I am working in,” he said. “Sometimes it does not get much better than that.”

While, for Celtic, this defeat doesn’t sting too greatly, it’s still another performance to be filed as evidence that things have regressed since Rodgers’ first season.

The 3,812 away supporters, many of whom gathered in the streets long before kick-off and seemed in the mood to celebrate, would rather
have seen things wrapped up on 
Saturday.

But results mean they now have the opportunity to secure the title against their oldest rivals at home on Sunday. Memo 
to Murty: schedule into this week’s 
preparations repeat viewings of how Hibs spoiled the party.