BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
NEIL LENNON insists he cannot wait to end his Ibrox exile as he prepares to cross swords with Rangers in Govan for the first time in FIVE YEARS.
The 46-year-old takes his Hibernian side west on Saturday for what promises to be a powder-keg clash, with the controversial pitch invasion at the 2016 Scottish Cup final between the sides – and subsequent repercussions – still fresh in the mind.
The presence of Lennon, a veteran of Old Firm battles as captain and boss of Celtic, in the dugout only serves to add further spice to the encounter.
Perhaps surprisingly for a man who was so often public enemy number one at Ibrox, Lennon appears genuinely fond of the venue and ready to embrace what promises to be a cauldron of noise in spite of the ‘darkness’ which can sometimes rear its head.
He said: “I have missed it [Ibrox]. Who wouldn’t? You miss the drama and the intensity and the theatre of it. That’s what it really is – theatre. It’s sport, it is entertainment.
“There is a darker side to it sometimes. But hopefully that can be kept to within the confines of the game.
“I enjoy it. There can be some venomous things said, but there can also be a lot of humour there as well. You can’t take yourself too seriously there.
“I enjoy getting off the bus. I enjoy walking out onto the pitch. I enjoy winning there – when you win it is a great feeling. So I want my players to go and enjoy that experience as well.
“To be honest, it is harder to stay calm on the touchline than when you’re playing. Out on the pitch, you can put in a tackle. Sometimes you need to take a deep breath on the touchline. As you get older, you do learn to temper it, maybe mellow a bit.
“I know I can’t get too emotional. And I’m sure I won’t.”
Lennon last took charge of a side at Ibrox in March 2012 when his Hoops side succumbed to a 3-2 defeat in a typically feisty affair, with Cha Du-Ri, Victor Wanyama and Carlos Bocanegra all dismissed. Lennon himself watched the second period from the media room after being sent off in the tunnel at half-time.
It is the tip of the iceberg of his experience at the home of his old foes.
Lennon smiled ruefully: “It was a piece of nonsense, me getting sent off – we went to Hampden and it was thrown out in five minutes. I was sent off because the official said I was using foul and abusive language.
“I watched the game in the media room . . . well, I couldn’t go up to the stand at Ibrox, could I?
“There have been a few surreal things happen to me there over the years, like going out on the pitch with Martin O’Neill when he was geeing up the fans, being sent off AFTER the game by Stuart Dougal – that one really pleased Gordon Strachan!
“I’ve had great occasions there; Beach Ball Sunday, that kind of thing. It’s all been part of the drama.
“This is different. I’m going there with Hibs, but there is still a good rivalry there.”
Lennon, however, has played down the relevance of the Scottish Cup final, which has played a large part in sparking the ferocity of the rivalry.
This is the first meeting between the sides since that breathless Hampden showpiece and pitch invasion which saw ugly clashes between both sets of fans.
Lennon added: “The main rivalries in Scotland are Celtic-Rangers and Hibs-Hearts. But this comes obviously off the back of the cup final, but that’s not really in my thinking at all.
“It is just a historical event now. You’ve got two different managers and more or less two different sets of players. We are just going out to play the game and try to win.”