BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
WHEN Neil Lennon was unveiled as Hibernian head coach last June, he declared to the assembled press corps that he had mellowed. A few eyebrows raised. The snarling, prowling figure who patrolled the midfield and, latterly, the touchline for Celtic had been soothed by age and experience.
He almost believed it.
Then Hibs’ meek 1-1 draw against Raith Rovers on Saturday brought about a ferocious rebuke of his players, comparable with anything he dished out to his trophy-hunting Hoops stars of yesteryear or his relegation-haunted Bolton players.
Lennon hopes it has the desired impact tonight when his thoroughly chastened Hibees take to the field to face Hearts.
“What actually pleased me was that I’ve still got the rage! I thought I’d mellowed,” he said. “But I’ve still got it in there.
“I caught myself [getting angry] – and that’s no bad thing. It still means so much. There is a time and a place for moments like that. I did it at Celtic and I’m sure I’ll do it again at other clubs.
“We must maintain the standards that we feel are needed. I can’t sugarcoat performances and it would be foolish to pull the wool over people’s eyes.
“Am I looking for a reaction? Any manager would after a disappointing performance. I think these guys have got good mental strength when they really need it. Hearts is a different animal. There will be an intensity, an atmosphere, and I’m pretty sure the players will feed off that.”
Perhaps the most damning assessment of his side’s display in Fife – there are a few to choose from amid descriptions such as “disgraceful”, “unprofessional” and “abject” – was the tacit implication that the current Hibs side pick and choose when to perform, raising their game for high-profile fixtures.
“I think that’s a natural assumption to make when you look at the results,” he continued. “What I’m looking for going forward is more intensity, concentration and application.
“In professional football if you’re going for a title, or going for a double then you can’t pick and choose your games.”
Hibs waited 114 years to lift the Scottish Cup and Lennon has no intention of being the man to hand it back – to Hearts or anyone else.
Indeed, he admitted to a few little white lies throughout this season when suggesting winning the Championship was his sole priority.
“We are very positive going into the game,” Lennon continued. “I don’t want to give [the Cup] up to anybody. I don’t want to get beat and we are not in that mode of thinking.
“Our priority is the league. Our priority is the Scottish Cup too. We have two priorities now. I know I have been saying all along that the league is the priority but I have been lying!”
‘THE FIRST GAME? TERRIBLE’: JOHN McGINN
John McGinn, one of those singled out for criticism by Lennon in Kirkcaldy, described the dressing down as “deserved” and, while he heard the audio during his drive home from Fife, he revealed it was nothing compared to the “far more ferocious” post-mortem in the dressing room at full-time.
He laughed off suggestions that it was a ploy from Lennon to ensure Hibs are particularly fired up tonight, however there can be little doubt McGinn is keen to right a few wrongs.
“The manager is doing it because he knows we can do better,” said the Scotland internationalist. “We’re all in it together and we’re keen to put on a show for him on Wednesday night and, at the same time, prove him wrong – and hopefully get a bit of praise after it!”
Putting on a show will be infinitely easier at Easter Road than it proved at Tynecastle 10 days ago when the sides played out with an attritional 0-0 stalemate on a pock-marked pitch.
McGinn candidly agreed with detractors who suggested it was arguably the worst Edinburgh derby ever, but believes far more palatable fare will be served up this evening, with an appetising quarter-final place against Ayr United up for grabs.
“The first game? It was terrible! It really was,” McGinn laughed ruefully. “I genuinely felt sorry for the Hearts boys that they had to play on that pitch again at the weekend.
“It was important for them to get that fixed and I think you’ll start to see them turn their home form around because it really was impossible to play any kind of football on it. The two teams went at it – but it was more like a boxing fight with no winner.
“I read a few people saying it was the worst Edinburgh derby for years – and I would agree with them.
“In a way both teams can be thankful it was a draw so we can both go and show we are not boring teams and put on a good show like we did last year. Hopefully this game will be easier on the eye and we can get the win.”