Neil Lennon: Steve Clarke has given Killie their pride back

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As if to illustrate his stance, Neil Lennon refuses to discuss the possibility of Kilmarnock bustling into the bidding for a top league position.

For now, Steve Clarke’s side sit sixth in the league and, sitting two places above them, with a nine-point advantage over fifth-placed Hearts and a 12-point lead over the Rugby Park side, the Hibernian boss has said he is no longer casting concerned glances over his shoulder. His focus now is on the teams ahead of them as they set their sights on bolstering their standing and ascending to second place.

Hibernian manager Neil Lennon in training. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

Hibernian manager Neil Lennon in training. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

“I don’t have an opinion on that,” said Lennon of Kilmarnock’s potential challenge. “I think they’ve got games in hand, which they will have to win. I can only talk about what we’re doing. We’re five points off second place so that’s all I’m looking at.”

The Ayrshire team are the form side, though, and appear to be eyeing their own advancement. Killie had enjoyed just one win in the Premiership by the time Clarke, pictured, took over in mid-October. Looking like relegation fodder at that time, they have since amassed eight victories – including a recent triumph over leaders Celtic and second-placed Rangers – and five draws in the league, while also progressing to the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup.

A side with momentum, Lennon can appreciate the turnabout engineered by his Killie counterpart and his coaching staff. On a fine run of their own, with four wins out of five, including the scalps of Rangers and Aberdeen in the last two outings, the Easter Road boss believes tomorrow’s clash will be tight.

“Psychologically it was good to win the last two games, I don’t think many people would have envisaged that,” he said. “But I’m not even sure that we’ll go into the game as favourites. That shows how well Kilmarnock are playing.

Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

“It’s another great challenge for us and one we’re looking forward to. We will go there and try to impose our game and win if we can. It’s important that we don’t ruin the previous two results but spoil some of the momentum.”

The last time the Leith side travelled to Rugby Park, they left with all three points, courtesy of a 3-0 win. That was just three games into Clarke’s tenure and, given that it was a lot closer than the scoreline suggests, it was seen as a pivotal display for a team more used to relegation scraps in recent years than the prospect of a post-split top-six place.

“It was a great game,” conceded Lennon. “I think we deserved to win but the scoreline did flatter us. I think the [Kilmarnock] supporters saw an identity to the team and a performance that they could take something from. There was a nice balance to the game. It was toing and froing and they have never looked back since then.

“I think Steve has certainly given them their pride back. The players really are playing for him at the minute and even after that game, he was pretty pleased. He looked in a good place even then. So early on, it looked like he was really enjoying it. That’s obviously been apparent since then.

“Alex Dyer [Killie assistant manager] needs to take a lot of credit as well. He’s very experienced. Garry [Parker, Lennon’s number two] and I have known him a long time. He is a really good number two.

“I know him from my time in England and he played with Garry, they were team-mates at Hull. Alex was a good number two at Huddersfield and very well thought of. A really good guy and they compliment each other very well.

“They are the form team. The other thing they have shown is a huge amount of character. They were 2-1 down to Dundee with ten men and managed to somehow win the game. They got a great result at Motherwell, which is not an easy place to go and they have beaten Celtic. So they are finding ways to win now. Against us at Easter Road, they scored early. We were the dominant team but we found it difficult to break them down. They’ve got a wee bit of steel about them and they have good experience in the team, with [Kris] Boyd’s goals and [Jordan] Jones can cause problems and Eamonn Brophy has been a real find. It’s the sum of all the parts, allied to a really good manager.

“You never know with Stevie, but he’s got to be happy with the way things are going. It’s another tough ask for us.”