It isn’t the way many envisaged things unfolding when John McGinn followed Dylan McGeouch out the door at Hibernian.
The Leith side had already waved off Scott Allan, who had been dispatched back along the M8 to parent club Celtic, and with the strike options uncertain as the forward duo of Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren tried to resolve injury issues and another loan spell respectively, there was a subdued end to the Europa League qualifying campaign and fleeting signs of trepidation as they weighed up the chances of building on last term’s strong showing.
The unexpectedly promising start to the season by city rivals Hearts and the signs of revival, particularly in Europe, at a Steven Gerrard-driven Rangers magnified the concern but, as they head towards the end of the first quarter of the season sitting second in the table, just two points behind their Gorgie derby foes and ahead of all the teams who finished ahead of them last term, including double treble winners Celtic, they are buoyed by the fact that perceived obstacles are being negotiated.
There has been just one Premiership defeat to blot the copybook, while goals at one end of the park are now being complemented by a more miserly approach at the other. Combined, it leaves them four points better off that they were at the same stage last season. “That really pleases me because we had a great season last year,” said Lennon. “We had a tremendous second half of the season last season and it might be difficult to emulate that but we will see where we go with it. I am delighted that we are looking like we are making progress again.
“We’ve no McGinn for a start. That would weaken any team. No McGeouch. So you have to rip up the midfield and build again. We’ve got players who are improving, like Martin Boyle, and players who have become really consistent. Efe Ambrose, for example, is playing at the top of his game, as good as I’ve seen him. We lost Ofir Marciano for a while, but the goalkeeper [Adam Bogdan] has come in and done an excellent job for me.
“There is still a good balance in the squad and we are scoring goals which is pleasing. We are on the front foot, trying to break down opposition. We’ve got players who can excite and take people on, which is really important for what we want to do.
Heading to Celtic Park today on the crest of four clean sheets, Lennon hopes they can use that platform to take the game to a team he believes remain favourites to retain their title.
“I don’t think there is anything to fear but there are concerns about playing a quality team and what they could do to you. We are in good form, the boys are in good condition and I want them to compete as we did in the four league games against Celtic last season.”
“I think we have players that can play and the mentality of the team is good. We went a goal down against Celtic at Celtic Park last season and we came back to lead 2-1 at one stage. That takes a lot of doing, mentally. That has gone, though, and we are in different circumstances and this is formidable opposition but it is a game that we know we can compete in and do well.”
In the corresponding fixture last season, Lennon’s men came within ten minutes of halting the Invincibles’ unbeaten domestic run when McGinn scored twice but his efforts were cancelled out by Callum McGregor’s own double. Just over 12 months on and, while Hibernian have undergone something of a shake-up, there is a widespread belief that Celtic simply need a shake, as they have struggled to spark into life this term, trailing the capital pair and coming up short in their Champions League ambitions. The aura of that surrounded that Invincibles team is gone, although Lennon insists there should still be a healthy level of respect for a team that continues to hog all the domestic silverware.
“Brendan’s first season is unsurpassable so everything after that, you’re going to go ‘they’re not as good as they were’. But they are. I think the most disappointing thing for him was not making the Champions League qualification. It’s a very difficult thing to do. I think there might have been a bit of a hangover from that. Watching them at St Johnstone the other week, there didn’t seem to be too many problems! They are keeping clean sheets domestically and, all right, they got beaten by Salzburg, but Salzburg are a top team and it’s not easy going away from home in Europe.
“There is a lot of hysteria. When you are going well, everything is brilliant, you are the best in the world. And when things aren’t going well, people analyse everything you to do death. They look for things that aren’t there. They look for conspiracies. That’s just the nature of working in Glasgow at the top level.
“In terms of performance, it is still earlyish in the season. I would expect them to find their consistency pretty soon. They have had high demands on them for a long, long time and they’ve come through, certainly domestically, with flying colours. They’ve only won six out of six trophies. They’re not doing too badly.
“I still think they are favourites to win the league. It’s going to maybe be closer because the league has become more competitive and teams are improving but they are still a cut above at the minute.”