Neil is at home with Hibernian

Neil Lennon with The Irish Voice

ONE Irishman currently loving life in Scotland is Hibernian manager Neil Lennon. He is on the verge of restoring Scotland’s first Irish-born football club to their rightful place in Scotland’s top flight, in a season which also saw Hibs win their first away tie in a senior European competition since 1989 and mount a creditable defence of the Scottish Cup, whatever the final outcome of that particular tournament may be.

Determination to succeed

To say that Lennon is a battler would be an understatement. The man has overcome many challenges to be a success in his very impressive career. His rise to football stardom began with leaving Manchester City in 1990—after making just one senior appearance for Howard Kendall’s side—in a quest to secure first-team football. Neil was subsequently picked up by Crewe Alexandra—then in England’s third tier—and shone under the management of their highly respected coach Dario Gradi. Crewe were relegated in Lennon’s first season at Gresty Road. Season 1991/92 saw the Railwaymen lose out in the promotion play-offs at the semi-final stage, without the injured Lennon, then season 1992/93 saw Crewe reach the play-off final, only to lose out on penalty kicks to York City at Wembley.

These defeats were doubtless character building for him and indeed for Crewe, who channelled their disappointment and frustration into determination and success the following season by finishing third and gaining automatic promotion to the third tier once more. Lennon’s midfield heroics were a big part of what was to prove a great resurgence for the Railwaymen—he was their playmaker.

Determination and success—two words that are now synonymous with the Irishman. The summer of 1994 saw him called up to play at international level, making his debut for Northern Ireland in a narrow friendly defeat to Mexico—played in Miami as part of Mexico’s preparations for World Cup USA 94. He was Crewe’s first internationalist in over 60 years! Neil went on to earn 40 international caps, but played for Northern Ireland at a time which was a bit of a ‘dark-age’ for them, as they repeatedly failed to qualify for major tournaments—a disappointment to many fans after the team had appeared at both the Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986 World Cups. The North had some fine players when Lennon was in the team, but it didn’t work out for them as a team group—that’s football. He quit international football in 2002.

Moving on up

Season 1994/95 saw Crewe Alexandra excel in what was then Division Two, again reaching the play-offs only to lose at the semi-final stage. Thus battling Crewe didn’t make it into Division One in time for season 1995/96, but Lennon did. His outstanding midfield performances in 187 appearances over his six-year spell at Gresty Road earned the Irishman a £750,000 mid-season transfer to First Division promotion-pushers Leicester City. It was at Filbert Street where he first played under boss Martin O’Neill. That very season, the Foxes beat Crystal Palace 2-1 in the First Division play-off final, winning after extra-time in front of 74,000 fans at Wembley to reach the Premiership.

Lennon was an integral part of that Leicester squad, as was Garry Parker—now his assistant at Hibernian—who scored a penalty in the Wembley play-off triumph. The following season, Leicester shocked football by winning the English League Cup, defeating Middlesborough in the final after a replay at Hillsborough. Again, Lennon and Parker were instrumental in this victory. Boro’s team had included stars like Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli. Lennon and the Foxes were back at Wembley in 1999, narrowly losing the League Cup Final to Spurs. 2000 saw the Foxes return to Wembley in the final of the same competition, beating Tranmere Rovers 2-1 in a match in which Tranmere’s defender Clint Hill—now of Rangers—was red-carded. Under Martin O’Neill and with Lennon in their midfield Leicester won cups, reached finals, finished in the top-half of the Premiership and competed in Europe.

“Those four big matches with Leicester: the play-off against Palace in 1996 and the three cup finals—two of which we won—helped shape my later career,” he said. “Martin O’Neill really instilled his winning mentality into us—that and the fact that being Irish means you relish being the underdog—got me through those tests. The way we lost the 1999 final to Spurs, a last-minute winner, and the fact that we didn’t think that we had played our best in that game galvanised us to go one better in that cup in the next season, when we won it again. The League Cup was a great competition for us, we learned and we won together. Leicester have did even better recently, but back in the late 90s it really was a magnificent achievement for a club like Leicester to be at Wembley four times in five seasons.

“It taught me that in football anything is possible if you work hard enough. In 1995 I was pushing for a Division One play-off place with Crewe, by 1996 I was playing in the Premiership with Leicester City and had won a trophy by early 1997. All of my career’s hard work and perseverance seemed to come to fruition at that time. I believe that
anything’s possible in football if you have a dream, work hard and follow it. The success I enjoyed with Leicester made me hungry for more success and I achieved even more at Celtic. Success plus hard work definitely breeds more success. I’m still hungry to have more success and I want that success to happen here at Hibs. The players here have won that cup and there’s still a great buzz among them. It’s filled them with belief. They went out and achieved and they’re so determined to hold on to that cup and to have even more success. The players have thrived on the feel-good factor here, that’s for sure.”

Celtic calling

Leicester’s habit of regularly punching above their weight soon caught the eye of bigger clubs and in the summer of 2000, Martin O’Neill was brought to Celtic as manager, as the Parkhead side looked to stop a rampant big-spending Rangers side managed by Dick Advocaat. O’Neill put Lennon at the top of his ‘shopping list,’ but Leicester City initially refused to allow the player to join Celtic, though they eventually relented and sold the Irishman to his boyhood heroes for just under £6m in December 2000.

With Lennon now deployed as a holding midfielder, Celtic blew away Rangers in season 2000/01, storming their way to the club’s first domestic treble since 1969. The following season saw Celtic again crowned champions, though Rangers won both cups that season, defeating the Hoops in the League Cup semis and in the Scottish Cup Final. Celtic and Lennon featured in the Champions League group stages in 2001, impressing at home, but the Hoops were unimpressive and unlucky away from home. 2002/03 saw the team end up in the UEFA Cup Final, after initially being knocked out of the Champions League by FC Basel. A wonderful run saw Martin O’Neil’s side lose 2-3 to Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto in that final in 2003, with Celtic being desperately unlucky in Seville. Celtic won the double in 2004 and retained the Scottish Cup in 2005. During this period Celtic lost two league titles on the last day of the season, 2003 and 2005.

New boss Gordon Strachan made Neil Lennon captain in 2005 as the Hoops battled their way to the 2005/06 title, and then a league and cup double in 2006/07. After a brief spell at Nottingham Forest, he returned to Celtic as a coach in April of 2008, serving under Gordon Strachan and then the ill-fated Tony Mowbray, before stepping into the manager’s job when Mowbray was sacked early in 2010. As a rookie manager, Lennon was beaten to the league title by the experienced Walter Smith’s Rangers in 2010 and 2011, but won the title in 2012, partly due to the Ibrox side’s implosion, but also because of the steely, winning mentality he had instilled in his Celtic players. In 2012/13, he won the double as a manager, romping to the title and defeating Hibs in the Scottish Cup Final, just as he had done to clinch the treble as a Celtic player in 2001. He left Celtic in 2014 having won three titles and two cups as boss.

“Celtic were the reason I chose to make Scotland my home,” he said. “I’d had a wonderful time at Leicester under Martin O’Neill and we’d won two league-cups. When Martin O’Neill left for Celtic I was 29 years old. I felt that it was time for me to look for a new challenge and I relished the chance of testing myself out at Celtic. I’ve loved my time in Scotland, it’s a home from home. I’m not officially affiliated to any civic groups or clubs connected with the Irish diaspora in Scotland, but a lot of my friends here are second-generation Irish and there are a lot of people with Irish ancestry in Scotland—particularly in the west—and of course I was at Celtic so you meet and get to know a lot of great people, Scottish and Irish. I like to go out in Glasgow to watch GAA in a pub if I get the chance.

“I’m also proud that I’ve managed two of Scotland’s main football teams with Irish roots, but I’m also aware that many of the fans are Scottish and I’m proud to do my best for them all. I’m a proud first-generation Irishman and I love Scotland. Aside from football stadiums and golf courses, my favourite places in Scotland are some of the bars in Glasgow’s west end. I also love going to Loch Lomond. There’s still many parts of Scotland that I want to see and visit, and I will, but I’m a busy man. I love the city life here. I love to go walking around Edinburgh too.”

He also helps out with a Scottish charity—St Margaret of Scotland Hospice in Clydebank, run by Tipperary woman, Sister Rita Dawson.

“I was asked to help raise the hospice’s profile and to also help to raise some funds for it, which I’m happy to do,” he said. “They have Mass there on Christmas Day every year and then I go around the wards and visit the patients. Sr Rita is a formidable woman; she does an unbelievable job there. I would do anything to help them out. “

Hibs challenge

A brief spell as Bolton manager didn’t work out as the Lancashire side suffered financial Armageddon, and the summer of 2016 saw Neil accept the challenge of getting Hibs promoted back to Scotland’s top-flight after two seasons in the second-tier.

His predecessor, Alan Stubbs, had failed twice in his attempts to get Hibernian promoted, but had managed to lead Hibs to Scottish Cup glory in 2016, shattering a 114-year-old hoodoo. Lennon joined Hibs at a time when the atmosphere among Hibs fans was euphoric and the morale sky-high—good conditions which any manager would like to arrive at any club under. The reality of still being in the second tier hasn’t dampened any spirits at Easter Road, and under his stewardship, the Hibees are on course for the title and automatic promotion.

I caught up with the man from Lurgan at Hibernian’s impressive training facility in East Lothian as he gave this exclusive interview to The Irish Voice. When I arrived he had just finished putting his squad through their paces in training amid a gale-force wind but the players were all smiles as they left the field to get lunch, after he and the players had paused to have their photos taken with excited members of Hibernian’s disabled supporters association. We talked about football, GAA, life in Scotland, his aspirations for Hibernian and about his earlier career, which was forged on the GAA pitch as much as on the football one. Like Hibs’ cult-hero Conrad Logan and Celtic legend Pat Bonner, the Hibs boss was a keen GAA player and still follows the game.

I asked Neil if he thought that playing Gaelic football in his youth had helped him in his (Association) football career.

“Playing Gaelic Football definitely helped my career,” he said. “It’s like a hybrid of football and rugby. It’s such a massive sport in the Irish communities back home and where I came from, in Lurgan, it was very popular. I played GAA in school and I played for my local club, Clan Na Gael. I would play regular football all week and then play Gaelic on a Sunday. Armagh is a hotbed of GAA so we’d go to watch the county team play whenever we could. I even played for Armagh’s youth team and for my school at Croke Park, so there’s no doubt that playing GAA helped my professional football career. It’s a very physical game and it certainly toughened me up.”

I asked Neil how he thought Armagh would do in the new GAA season.

“That’s a really good question!” he said. “They’ve been really off the boil. In the past I played with the coach, Kieran McGeeney. He’s had such a major rebuilding job to do there since taking over. Ulster’s so competitive, too, the likes of Donegal, Tyrone, Derry and even Fermanagh have all did well recently, form tends to move in cycles so I’m hopeful that it’ll be Armagh’s time to shine again soon. Aaron Kernan retiring was a big loss to the pool of players that we have.”

I pointed out to him that Hibernian FC was actually a big part of his early career at Celtic, though not in a way most Hibs fans would like to remember! His first visit to Easter Road was in early May 2001 when Hibs and Celtic met in the league, a few weeks before they were to face each other in the Scottish Cup Final. Celtic won the Easter Road match 5-2—an encounter best remembered as Alan Stubbs’ comeback game after his cancer battle. Celtic beat Hibs again at Hampden a few weeks later to seal the treble, then one of Alex McLeish’s last games in charge of Hibernian at the start of the following season saw the Hoops win 4-1, leading 4-0 at half-time. Then I, as a Hibs fan, jokingly pointed out to him that he probably owes us a favour for all that! Thankfully he got the joke.

“Hopefully I can make that up to the Hibs fans soon!” he laughed. “I love life at Hibs and relish every challenge that comes our way. It’s a great club and I’m privileged to be the manager. The supporters are great, they really are, and I’ve been made to feel so welcome. In fact the fans have been amazing. I came to the club at a good time, just after the historic Scottish Cup win, and I hope we can have more success here. I remember the old East Stand at Easter Road. No-one who’s ever played in front of that stand ever forgets the atmosphere, the noise. As an opposition player I used to get a lot of stick from the fans on that stand, which you’d expect as an opposition player. The fans used to stand in the stand. It made for a brilliant atmosphere, the noise was loudest from the fans in the middle of it and those in the section closest to the away end. I played against a few Hibs teams in my time at Celtic. Hibs have had some great players over the years. Guillaume Beuzelin was one of the hardest to play against for me. He had grace and composure on the ball and never seemed to give the ball away. Derek Riordan was also a magic player. He could score a wide variety of goals with either foot and you never really knew what he was going to do next. My time at Celtic as a player and a manager has been a great help here at Easter Road, it’s stood me in good stead. I’ve learned so much about Scottish football, the Scottish game and football in general and I think that’ll help us to have more success here.”

I pointed out that he has something in common with the great Jock Stein, as both of them have managed Hibernian and Celtic.
“Jock Stein is one of my biggest inspirations,” he enthused. “He changed Scottish football forever, and for the better. He did great things at Dunfermline, Hibs, Celtic and for Scotland. I’m also inspired by great managers like Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough and Martin O’Neill, but Jock Stein is one of, if not, the greatest British manager there’s ever been. I know a lot of guys who were lucky enough to play under him, and they all say the same thing.
“I loved the recent cup victory over Hearts too, and yes, it was as good a feeling as beating Rangers with Celtic was. It’s a big city derby and a great fixture to win. It’s a different fixture to a Glasgow derby, but that doesn’t make it any less of a big deal. A few years back it seemed that Hibs were the underdogs in Edinburgh, but in the last couple of seasons the worm has turned, Hibs are on top in the fixture again. We played brilliantly against Hearts and thoroughly deserved the victory. I was most pleased for the fans, we won that match for them, and Sunshine on Leith at the end of the tie was amazing, something I’ll never forget and I hope to hear it again. It’s great that Hibs have a unique song synonymous only with them. I’m sure it brings back memories of other triumphs for the fans, too.”

One criticism of Hibs in the previous two league campaigns was that the team could be lightweight at times, good at ‘sexy soccer’ but sometimes with a tendency to allow other teams to physically bully them. I asked him what he had changed to make the team so much tighter at the back and so hard to beat.

“I inherited a very good squad from Stubbsy,” he said. “I added some experience to it with guys like Grant Holt and I rectified the goalkeeping situation, which was very important. We did lose a few matches last season despite dominating our opponents and as the manager I’ve did my best to rectify that. There’s no quick-fix though, nothing can happen overnight. The team’s mentality was actually pretty strong when I came in, I just want to make it even stronger. We’ve tried to instil a bit more steel, which I’ve felt Hibs have lacked not just in recent seasons, but over a number of years. Winning in style is all well and great but the most important part is the winning, particularly this season. Promotion is our priority. My aim for next season is to finish in the top six of the Premiership and to change our style of play a little bit as teams will attack us more in the top flight. After that, we’ll see what else we can achieve.

“To the fans, I would say, please keep coming along to the games. I’m loving life at Hibs—it’s exceeded all of my expectations. The fans are such a big part of that, this season’s crowds and atmosphere have shown what a huge club Hibs is, with support such as we’re getting, with hard work, anything’s possible for this great club.”

Play-off defeats, promotions, relegations, play-off victories, cup final defeats, cup-final victories, title jubilation, final day disappointment, European success and international recognition—all of that between 1990 and 2014 has made Neil Lennon into one of the most clever, resilient, driven, inspirational, realistic, determined and optimistic characters in football. He’s a winner. He should be. He played under top coaches like Howard Kendall, Dario Gradi, Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. Hibernian are lucky to have him, yet, with admirable modesty, he thinks that he’s lucky to have Hibernian.

Ian Colquhoun is the author of From Oblivion To Hampden and is the Hibernian FC columnist for The Irish Voice