Neil Lennon says he takes an immense amount of joy from watching past players prosper.
The Hibernian manager has seen a number of his former charges move on to bigger and better things, in the English game and on European duty, and says that, while the loss of John McGinn leaves him with the task of remoulding his side, he has watched the midfielder’s early performances at Aston Villa with pride.
“The guys who have gone are irreplaceable for us, you have to maybe adapt. We’ll see how that goes, I’m excited about it. I’m watching McGinn last night [when Villa scored a last-gasp goal to grab a draw against Brentford] and I was full of admiration for him, he was brilliant. It was a great game and a really good advert for our club, who brought this player in and developed him under Stubbsy and myself. The mechanism was there in the background for him and he turned out to be a really fine footballer. He’s a big loss to us but we move on. We’ve brought players in and we’re trying to bed them in.”
But, rather than rue the ones that got away, Lennon says he keeps a watchful eye on the career advancement of players he worked with at Celtic and at Hibs, content that he was able to play a role in their development.
“Of course! I sit and watch the likes of [Liverpool’s Virgil] Van Dijk, smoking a big cigar! You take a huge amount of enjoyment from knowing that you’ve worked with them, you’ve brought them through, even found them.
“With the likes of [Victor] Wanyama, I love watching how he’s doing. If they’re on the TV, you watch to see how they’re doing.
“McGinn now, and other players like Fraser Forster, who ended up playing for England. Joe Ledley is still going really strong, Charlie Mulgrew – you get a buzz out of that, of course you do.”
But Lennon says that honing raw talents and then watching them move on is part and parcel of the game, particularly at Scottish clubs, but he says it is up to him and other managers to keep unearthing fresh potential and keep the conveyor belt moving.
“I think our fans have a realism about them. It was inevitable that John was going to go and it was good business for the club and made sense. We got a good fee for him and it was impossible to halt his progress. I don’t think there are too many fans out there who will think I could go and get a replica of John McGinn for £1,500 a week, though. It’s not going to happen.
“So we will look elsewhere and look at a change of players which we looked at on Sunday with a back four instead of three. We want that degree of flexibility where we may have to change depending on the opposition as well.”
Tomorrow Hibs face Aberdeen, who have also had to absorb the loss of key players, with Kenny McLean and Adam Rooney heading to England and Ryan Christie recalled by Celtic. Which leaves everyone still sussing out the opposition and tweaking targets for the season ahead.
“Craig [Levein, Hearts manager] has lost Kyle Lafferty and he has lost Christophe Berra for six months and it is difficult. Lafferty was a big player for him and then Derek [McInnes, at Aberdeen] has lost McLean and Christie is not there anymore, so they will have to adapt and we have lost McGinn and [Dylan] McGeouch who were fundamental players for us, but that’s the environment we work in.”
While Aberdeen, Hibernian and Hearts have all had to rejig their squads, the complete overhaul of the Rangers squad seems to have been heralded more widely and positively, with some believing that Steven Gerrard’s new-look side could pull away from the rest of Scottish football as they push Celtic close.
But Lennon is reserving judgement until the transfer window closes and all the teams are deeper into the season, claiming it is far too early to say if the Ibrox club can improve on successive third-place finishes and offer a genuine title challenge.
“I think it’s too early to say if Celtic and Rangers are going to go on and become the top two teams,” he added. “There’s obviously a significant improvement at Rangers – but for me it was not that major a job to do on the back of what wasn’t a great season for them last year.
“They are investing, which is something the likes of ourselves, Aberdeen and Hearts can’t do. But on any given day any team can be beaten.
“I still think Celtic will win the league. Whether the gap gets closer remains to be seen. Rangers will be firm favourites for second place but I don’t believe in the hype. There is a lot of hysteria around big clubs, not just in Scotland but England and elsewhere. But when you sit down and watch the games, you think, ‘Mmm… mmm. I’m not so sure’.”