Neil Lennon going back to basics

WITH A continental flourish, Georgios Samaras said on Friday that his new boss, Neil Lennon, has cut his players free to enjoy their football again. Lennon, said the big Greek striker, has "given us our smile back", a claim that sounded strange coming from the deadpan Samaras, who in his public utterances is to mirth what Tiger Woods is to fidelity. In any case, the claim is surely going to get tested to the full at Easter Road this afternoon.

Hibs might be on a wretched run right now, having won just two of their last 11 games, but there is nothing that galvanises that club more than the sight of the arriving Hoops – or Wasps as they will be today.

Celtic have dropped points in half of their last ten games at Easter Road. In their last five, home and away, the record stands at two wins apiece with one draw, so the smile could very quickly turn into a frown if John Hughes' team turn up, which Lennon has no doubt they will.

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"We know there's goals in them," he said. "(Derek] Riordan, (Colin] Nish, (Anthony] Stokes – good players. They have Liam Miller and people like that. I've always liked Liam. I'd have liked him to have stayed on here, but with Manchester United coming for him it was very hard to turn down. I don't know what happened to his career. In hindsight, maybe he went too early, but he's still a player, very athletic, gets beyond the strikers, been a good signing.

"And Riordan, he's a big player for them. Dangerous, dangerous player. Class finisher, clever, makes good runs, good feet. Probably didn't do himself justice when he was here, but Hibs is his home. He's a consistent goalscorer and he's a guy we have to keep an eye on. I think he just found it hard here. It's very demanding being at Celtic. You can't have one good game in three, you have to have three in three to stay in the team. Maybe it was a wee bit early for him as well, but since he went back to Hibs he's recaptured his form. I do like him. I like him a lot as a player."

Friday saw Lennon as sure-footed in the glare of the media as he was on the day he was unveiled as caretaker manager, speaking candidly about his position at the club and refusing to let things out of his control crowd in on top of him. There has, for instance, been much speculation about who will get the job on a full-time basis in the summer. We've had, from left-field via, you suspect, the over-active imagination of his agent, a claim from the Nigel Pearson camp that Celtic have been in touch already. Pearson, manager of Leicester City, says he feels honoured to be on the shortlist which, of course, doesn't yet exist. But that's the way of it in Old Firm football.

Paul Lambert, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane, Mick McCarthy, Csaba Laszlo and others have been given a mention. The rumour mill had it, at one point last week, that Martin O'Neill was quitting Villa Park to head back up the road to Lennoxtown. Fanciful nonsense, but there is plenty more of this to come – and Lennon knows it. "It doesn't bother me in the slightest," he says. "Honestly."

Beginning his managerial career in a madhouse like Celtic, as opposed to a nursery like Lincoln where his old mate Chris Sutton is manager, isn't causing him to fret either. What is most impressive about Lennon is his refusal to complicate things, his ability to bring a straightforward wisdom to situations where previously there was paralysis by analysis. He looks at ease in this world, happy to let the hype and hoopla whiz past his ears.

"I couldn't turn it down," he says of his current role. "Had I gone to Lincoln and had a stinker, where would I have gone from there? Chris was out of the game for a couple of years and he wanted a way back in and he was fortunate enough to get the Lincoln job and is doing really well there. I had no qualms about accepting this. I wanted it. I wanted it since I stopped playing football. I had two years to get my head around it. If you look at Martin's team here, the only thing that's surprised me is there's not a few more of us managers. (Apart from Sutton, Paul Lambert is manager of Norwich and Henrik Larsson is in charge at Landskrona in Sweden.] Give them time. I'd be surprised if there wasn't another few managers out of that group of players."

Lennon, in marked contrast to his predecessor, doesn't look much beyond what is directly in front of him, so that means no two-year plan, no vow of bread today and jam tomorrow. It's all immediate. It has to be. Continuing this afternoon. If he has a project, it's to do with re-establishing Parkhead as a fortress, which it hasn't been for a few seasons now. Last time Hibs were there, they won.

"You want to get that fear back (in opponents]. It pains me to say it, but when teams go to Ibrox, domestically anyway, Rangers are very, very strong. I think if you've any chance of winning championships you have to be strong at home, have to make the most of that advantage. I just look at games when we've been on top and not killed teams off. We've let in goals against teams, with all due respect, we should be beating, particularly at home. Celtic Park is not an intimidating place for teams any more. We want to change that. It won't be done in a short space of time, but in the next season or two we want to make it a place that people fear coming to, because at the minute it's not. It's too easy."

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After a cushy opener at Kilmarnock last Saturday, today is going to be more of an examination of Lennon's ability. Nobody is going to make up their mind about his credentials on the basis of one game, but a win at Easter Road will an interesting statement.