Neil Lennon freely concedes ground to Hearts counterpart Craig Levein when it comes to Edinburgh derby experience, but the Hibernian manager is confident his players will not take a step back in the battle on the pitch tonight.
Although Lennon is steeped in Old Firm history as a player and manager, the 46-year-old will taste just his second version of the capital rivalry at Easter Road this evening. With Levein having played or managed in 52 of the city’s encounters, and lost just six of those, the Hibs head coach accepts his opposite number will bring a greater understanding of how to earn success.
The Northern Irishman is certainly expecting a more robust approach to the match than his side experienced when the teams last met back in February. On that occasion, under the studied approach of Ian Cathro, Hearts were accused of capitulating meekly to their oldest foes, something that is not anticipated under the more pragmatic Levein.
However, whilst previous Hibs line-ups may have struggled to match their Tynecastle opponents’ strength of mind and body, Lennon is confident he has the players who can stand up to whatever Hearts throw at them.
“I expect Hearts to be mentally and physically stronger,” he said. “Craig knows these derbies far better than I do and he knows what it takes to win them. I expect the game to be physical and to have a good tempo. Under the lights there is always a bit more added to the atmosphere.
“It is a game that, when you are at Hibs, you want to make your name in. These are the games that the fans remember and that is a real motivation for the players as well. We will be emphasising that a lot to the players between now and kick-off. This is a big game. I want my players to earn the right to play. If the game is going to be feisty and gets turned into a physical battle I want them to be ready to stand up to that. They can do that and we have proved that already this season against really strong opposition.
“Hearts are rugged and grinding out results and that is what Craig brings. Craig gets results and we will have to force the issue if we must and put them under pressure when we can. If that means mixing it up physically as well as playing football then we can do that.”
Although Hibs will take confidence into the game from being unbeaten in seven derby matches over three years, they also go into the match on the back of just two wins in their last nine outings and with the setback of losing Saturday’s Betfred Cup semi-final against Celtic at Hampden.
Nonetheless, Lennon believes tonight’s clash is the perfect challenge for his players, whom he has backed to click together when their supporters demand it most. “It’s a home derby and it will be a full house,” he commented. “They don’t have too much time to dwell on things and they are chirpy again. We are not far away from being a very good side at this level. But we have to maintain that consistency and level of performance. I’m not expecting to turn up and just win the game. I am expecting to go in and compete and play good football when we can, and play at a good tempo and put Hearts on the back foot.”
One notable positive from the 4-2 loss to Celtic was a maiden goal at first-team level by 19-year-old Oli Shaw, who translated his prolific touch at under-20 level to the high-profile surroundings of a cup semi-final at Hampden just a minute after his introduction as a late substitute.
Lennon recounted having “a feeling” about the teenager making an impact at the weekend and, with Anthony Stokes nursing an ankle injury and Danny Swanson a doubt with a knee problem, has not ruled out turning to the youngster again this evening.
“It didn’t faze him coming on on Saturday, so that was a real bonus,” he added. “He’s a bit like Harry Kane. He starts the season and you think he’s a big lanky so-and-so. Then, all of a sudden, he starts playing really well, banging the goals in and leading the line.
“I just want the kid to kick on now. He’s a goalscorer and his movement is very good, and in the last three or four weeks he’s been more or less banging the door down to get a start.”