Labelled a backward step, Neil Lennon has no qualms about taking on a management job in the Scottish Championship. For the new Hibs boss, the interesting thing is not where the club is currently situated, it is all about where he believes he can take it.
“I was looking at Brian Clough’s career. He had 44 days at Leeds, the champions of England. He left to go to the First Division with Nottingham Forest.” There he went on to win a league title and two European Cups. “Eddie Howe left Burnley to go to Bournemouth and he hasn’t done too badly. Rafa Benitez was managing the European Cup winners at the start of the season, now he is in the Championship. So, you just don’t know where your career will take you next.”
Hoping to recapture the glory days after a turbulent period at Bolton Wanderers, at Hibs he is relishing the intensity of operating in a city with two big clubs and a well-established rivalry.
“I like the fact that Hibs are a big-city club, a capital one actually. I know the history and culture of the club. We’re not going from A to B, we’re trying to take them from B to A. It’s going to be tough. It won’t be pretty at times. There will be games we’ll have to scratch and we’ll have to do it a bit better than we did at times last year. I consider them one of the top five clubs in Scotland. I wouldn’t have gone below that. There are Premiership clubs who aren’t as big as Hibs. That wouldn’t have appealed to me.”
Describing the demands of life as a rookie manager at Celtic as a rollercoaster, he uses words like chaotic, exciting, intense. The emotional and mental stimuli were important to him when considering a return to Scotland.
“You want the intensity, otherwise it becomes just another job. There’s an excitement and a feel-good factor here. There’s a pressure. I’m used to that from before so I’m looking forward to that challenge again.”
As a player and then manager at Celtic Park he recognises the need to win on a regular basis. It is a basic requirement when the league title is at stake. Move down a division and that same burden of expectation will have to be shouldered at Hibs.
“Sometimes it’s not pretty and there were plenty games in my time at Celtic that weren’t pretty because people forget that there are 11 and maybe three subs from the other team trying to stop you from scoring a goal or doing what you want to do. People think you only have to turn up and you will win the game. If you have more quality then, yes, eight [times] out of ten that quality will prevail, but you need a certain temperament to play at big clubs and we have all seen players go to Celtic from the likes of Hibs and Dundee United and wherever and they struggle because they can’t handle the pressure so we need to address that with the players here.”
Heading into a third campaign in the second tier, a fourth cannot be contemplated. With no Rangers or Hearts in the line-up, Hibs will be even more exalted scalps and the fact they displayed a vulnerability when it came to breaking down stodgy underdogs at times last term will offer opponents hope.
The Scottish Cup win papered over their failure to achieve their first target – promotion, but this season there will be no hiding place, with Lennon adamant that the bonus of having city rivals is diminished somewhat if they don’t have the chance to test themselves against Hearts on a regular basis.
“Playing Hearts isn’t my full focus but we’d love to have those games back. We’ve a mountain of work to do before we can get to that stage. Hearts, when they went up a couple of seasons ago, were really convincing. That’s a really good template to look at. We’ve been discussing what they did and how they went about it. They recruited well, had a settled team and won the league convincingly in the end. It was seamless and that’s what we’re going to try and do here. They did it without a lot of fuss. If we can do that we’ll build from there, but we’ve got 36 games to go first.”
European football is viewed as no more than a bonus and offers the manager time to test out players he inherited and get the balance right with any additions he makes. But when the league campaign starts, they have to be ready. “It’s important we make a good start to the season. There will be ups and downs but it’s about how we deal with the negativity or losses. That’s down to me getting the mentality right.
“It can’t be just the players because it has been like that for seven or eight years, so it can’t just be them. It maybe comes from within the club itself and we have to try address that but it is difficult to do. I’m not saying that I’m going to do it but what I’m going to try to do is instil a better mentality in terms of consistency and not resting on your laurels and stop getting pats on the back for winning one game. If we win one match, let’s go on and win the next one and when we have won 10 then maybe we can enjoy those 10 games and then move on to the next 10. But not week in, week out. It has to be over a 36 game period.”