BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
LIAM FONTAINE, the Hibernian defender, still vividly recalls his bow in Scottish football, when Jim Jefferies charged the fresh-faced teenager with shackling the likes of John Hartson, Chris Sutton and Aiden McGeady.
At the heart of it all, orchestrating proceedings in typically demanding fashion, was the unmistakable figure of Neil Lennon.
On loan to Kilmarnock from Fulham at the time, Fontaine admits the encounter in January 2005 was the biggest test of his young career but, as it happened, he performed admirably as Jefferies side came agonisingly close to claiming a point.
That ‘win at all costs’ mentality displayed by the team led by Lennon – now head coach of Hibs – is something Fontaine knows the Hibees must cultivate in order to live up to their billing as favourites for the Ladbrokes Championship title.
“I actually made my debut in Scottish football and the gaffer [Lennon] was in the opposition team,” he recalled. “So I can say I played against him.
“It was Killie v Celtic at Rugby Park, it was a 1-0 defeat – it was a tight game, I remember it quite clearly. Celtic had a great team at the time and Chris Sutton scored.
“I was on loan, Jim Jefferies was boss, and it was the biggest game I’d played at that point as I’d just turned 18.
“I had remembered watching him in his time at Leicester and he was always a hungry player, someone who wanted to win and passed that on to the players around him.
“He has put that across to us and our standards have risen. We’ll go into every game buzzing.
“If you are going to be champions you have to be able to win games 1-0. If you are not going to score you shouldn’t concede and he’s trying to drill that into us. It’s up to us to take that mentality on to the pitch and grind the results out if needed.”
Hibs endured their first domestic set-back under their new manager on Tuesday evening when they exited the Betfred Cup against Queen of the South, succumbing to a 3-1 defeat after missing a swathe of opportunities and defending dismally.
Lennon has made it clear he expects a response against Dunfermline Athletic this afternoon, with Fontaine noting “he was entitled to give us a piece of his mind after that result”.
However, the powerful defender is adamant the current Hibs squad is well placed to handle lofty expectations.
“We’re the biggest club in the Championship so everyone sees us as a scalp. We have to be able to deal with the pressure it brings,” he continued. “I feel we’re going to be better mentally this year, definitely. We know what we want to achieve and how we’re going to go about doing it.
“That comes from experience – losing finals, winning finals, play-off games and learning all the time. Last year we had a lot of ups and downs and showed great character to finish on a high.”