West of Scotland's big arenas hold no fear for Hibs
On the evidence of Hibernian’s trips west to the major amphitheatres of Scottish football, if you want to see captivating contests of the classic, colossal kind, don’t stick Glasgow’s biggest draws together – that results in only one-sided affairs – but put them up against Neil Lennon’s men. The Easter Road side came mighty close to putting the seemingly unbeatable Celtic to the sword on Saturday, only a month after slaying Rangers at Ibrox, which serves to remind how much of a miss the Leith club have been during their three-year exile from the top flight.
With his three fellow former Celtic employees, Anthony Stokes, Efe Ambrose and Dylan McGeouch, in his playing ranks, Lennon could take a team to Parkhead that experienced no discomfort facing treble holders on a 57-match unbeaten run.
Not, too, when he has such as one-time Rangers stalwart Steven Whittaker and big-game reveller John McGinn embracing so major an occasion that among the sell-out crowd was Rod Stewart and former Celtic owner, Fergus McCann.
Just as he would as a player, for all his almost familial bonds with Celtic, Lennon and his men puffed out their chests and set about showing they wouldn’t be anyone’s patsies.
Lennon may despair at the Jekyll and Hyde nature of his team but, on Saturday, their mentality, underpinned by McGinn’s striking prowess, put them on the verge of a famous win before Callum McGregor’s very own second goal, an anything-you-can-do riposte to the efforts of McGinn, with whom he will now be on Scotland duty this week.
Lennon recognised, because he knew all about such biorhythms first hand, that Celtic would experience a blunting of their physical and psychological edge on the back of their remarkable 3-0 victory away to Anderlecht in the Champions League this week. But Hibs still had to have the weapons and the wherewithal to make the most of any slight slippage from Celtic, and they had that all over the pitch to provide Brendan Rodgers men with what he maintained was their “toughest test” domestically of his 15 months in charge.
McGinn may have provided the propulsion, but, in such as Stokes, they had craft.
After a six-year career at Celtic, the Irishman admitted it was “strange coming back because it’s familiar surroundings but you’re on the opposite end of things,” but said that Lennon’s approach for this game had not altered from any other Hibs encounter this season.
“He was just himself. The gaffer is a winner. I think he sees every game the same. There is no difference to him. He wants three points or he wants a win. Going to Celtic Park was no different.
“Obviously, the club has played a big part in his life and his career. I assume he will have enjoyed the welcome that he got. But it is all about what happens on the pitch.”
Fascinating things happened all over the pitch, with McGinn’s tour de force in the centre of the park constantly drawing the attention. With no Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong for Scotland’s World Cup qualifying climax, McGinn confessed he had thought about his possibilities of featuring as Slovakia visit Hampden on Thursday and in Slovenia three days’ later.
“He has great quality. I think he is getting better and better,” said Stokes, pictured below. “He proved he is ready to step up to international football in the first game he played for Scotland. He got man of the match against Denmark [in March 2016]. Probably the one thing he lacks in his game is scoring goals.
“But to do what he did on Saturday on a stage like that shows you that he is improving. I have said to him to try and break in and come on to balls on the edge of the box. His two strikes at the weekend were just brilliant. To beat a keeper of the quality of Craig Gordon from the distance they were hit says it all. He was outstanding. Even his work rate, his overall game, was just exceptional.”
As was Gordon with his logic-defying block to deny Whittaker practically on the line at 1-1. Stokes, who said his numbers for field coverage show he isn’t the “lazy” player suggested to be by Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, believes the Celtic keeper stopped a “100 per cent goal”.
“But he ends up getting some hand on it. Keepers go through bad spells, like strikers when you’re not scoring, but that’s the standard he’s set throughout his career.”
And for all Hibs’ efforts, with a 58-match unbeaten run, Stokes could only applaud the “unbelievable” team Rodgers has constructed since arriving at the club last year.