Neil Lennon says that he will not celebrate if his Hibernian team manage to gain the win that brings Celtic’s historic domestic unbeaten run to a halt.
The former Parkhead manager returns to the East End of Glasgow with his newly-promoted side tomorrow and he admits that it will be a trip that stirs up a tumult of feelings.
“I think it will be difficult [to take emotion out of it]. It’s been a while since I’ve been back to Parkhead in a competitive manner. Three or four years now. Yes, I’ve been back for functions and press duties, but this is work. I’ve got to put all that to one side. People say ‘will you enjoy it?’ No, I won’t, either way it will be difficult to enjoy it. But as long as my team plays well and we get a positive result then I came come away satisfied. If we win, I’ll not be celebrating. It’s three points and we move on. If we get beat, I’ll be very upset – that’s the standards we set for them.
“The day will be a mixed bag of emotions. I’m always happy going back to Celtic Park – but this is different. Everyone will be glad to see me but, come three o’clock, they’ll be wanting me to fail. And I get that. There is that mixed emotion for me, really. But I have a job to do. My priority now is Hibs.”
Lennon spent sevens seasons as a player at Celtic and another four as manager. Saturday will be the first time he has faced them competitively.
After a stutter, of a defeat and three draws, the Leith side returned to winning ways in Dingwall last weekend and Lennon wants his men to build on that, although he recognises the difficulty of the task facing them. Many have faced up to last season’s treble winners intent on proving they are mere mortals but for the past 57 games, every domestic challenger has been repelled by Brendan Rodgers’ team of invincibles.
But while he acknowledges the strength and depth in the Celtic squad, Lennon believes that there may be an extra glimmer of hope if skipper Scott Brown is ruled out after picking up a hamstring strain in the midweek Champions League win against Anderlecht, with Scotland also sweating on the national captain’s fitness ahead of the World Cup double header with Slovakia and Slovenia.
“The influence he brings is crucial. And he’s getting better,” Lennon said. “I hope for Scotland’s sake, going into these big games, that he’s fit. But I’m also hoping he doesn’t recover in time for Saturday! Yeah, I think he could probably do with a break!” added the man who says he owes the Scotland captain a debt of gratitude for helping him break into management, at Celtic.
“He’s a good player, Broony, and he’s always been a good player. I wouldn’t have got the Celtic job if it wasn’t for him.
“When I was interim manager [of Celtic], we won the last eight games in the league – and he was fantastic for us, played really well. Then he was great for me during the four years I was permanent manager.
“He had a few injuries, came back from them and now looks as good as ever. He had a brilliant season last year and has started this season really well for club and country.
“I think he’s under-rated, in terms of his footballing ability. People talk about the gallusness and aggression. But Broony can really play, he can really handle the ball. He’s a fantastic athlete and a great presence on the pitch as well.”
If the foes remain intimidating, the opportunity to succeed where others have failed remains an incentive for every side pitted against Celtic, who defeated city rivals Rangers last weekend and were buoyed further by a rare Champions League away win in midweek.
“I don’t think I will need to motivate the team, I think that will come naturally,” Lennon said. “It’s about making sure the concentration and fitness levels are up to speed and ensuring we stay in the game.
“But [ending the unbeaten run] makes no difference to me; it’s not my record. It is irrelevant to me that they are on this great run of domestic games. If we were to break it, so be it. It will end at some stage. But that wouldn’t make me any happier. It would be a fantastic win and three points. That’s all I’m thinking about.
“I’m delighted we are playing in this fixture. The reward of getting promotion is to go and play the champions in front of a sell-out crowd. It doesn’t get much better than that for the players. We are playing the best team in Scotland by a country mile, who are off the back of two fantastic results this week. We have to respect them, compete and not just roll over. That’s not in my nature, regardless of who we are playing.
“We’ve got a fair idea how we want to play and it’s about finding that balance of
playing well defensively and
making sure we have enough going forward. I’m hoping
we will be defensively disciplined, have a bit of luck and not just be penned in. We
need to be brave in the final third as well.”