BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
NEIL LENNON has joked that he will equip his players with cricket-style groin guards at Tynecastle tonight – after Steven MacLean was caught ball-tampering.
The Hibs head coach last night labeled the Hearts hit-man ‘cheeky’ after footage showed him grabbing the nether regions of Celtic midfielder Eboue Kouassi.
While Lenny reckons there was no malice in the incident, he can sympathise with the furious reaction of the Hoops’ Ivorian international.
“We’re wearing cricket boxes,” laughed Lennon. “We’ll give them out for the players to wear just in case.
“Under the rules, it’s not supposed to be the done thing, and I don’t think Kouassi was too impressed. I don’t think I would have been too impressed either! It was cheeky.
“I probably would have rolled over in pain, but I don’t think there is any malice in it.”
Hibs winger Daryl Horgan, meanwhile, added: “It is just a bit silliness, trying to get an extra edge. It happens more than you would think. Unfortunately for him, this time the cameras caught him. It is not the nicest thing to do, but sometimes it happens.”
Although the headlines have been dominated by MacLean’s bizarre attempt at games, Lennon insists Hearts have more to their game than dirty tricks.
The Jambos are currently riding high at the summit of the Premiership and, despite an onerous injury list that now includes Steven Naismith as well as Christophe Berra, John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu, the Hibs maintains his side are the underdogs.
Indeed, the Hibees have not found Tynecastle a happy hunting ground. More than five years has passed since they last registered a victory in Gorgie, with a late Ross Caldwell strike securing a dramatic 2-1 triumph back in May 2013.
He continued: “You would do Hearts a disservice to just talk about things like that. They are a strong team. Yes, they cross the line, but no more so than other teams. We have to be prepared to ready for that, stand up to the derby challenge and get on with it.
“They have been very impressive. They’re winning games, which is a really nice habit to have. Their home form is super and we will go into the game as underdogs – but we will look forward to it.
“Tynecastle is a difficult place to go. It’s proven that. Hearts are unbeaten since April. They have taken Celtic’s scalp. Aberdeen. They are very strong at home. So we are going to have to be strong and as resolute at times and try to pick our moments to make things happen.”
Of the last five meetings between the sides, only one has been decided by a winning margin of more than one goal and, allied by the fact both clubs are nursing European aspirations this term, Lennon reckons Edinburgh now boasts the most evenly matched derby in Scotland.
He added: “It’s very competitive and both teams have improved. We have both had our troubles in the past, both have have rebuilt and now are thriving. It is one of the great Scottish fixtures that people look forward to and maybe the most evenly-balanced, in terms of derbies.
“Obviously it’s not as big as the Glasgow derby. We know that. But it’s still a very attractive fixture, not just for the supporters of both teams, but for neutrals as well.”
In an additional subplot to the encounter, Hibs arrive at Tynecastle on the back of 11 days without a match – with Lennon ruefully suggesting that ‘rigour mortis’ had set in among his squad.
Lennon, who is sweating over the fitness of David Gray, Thomas Agyepong and Paul Hanlon added: “It’s just absolutely ridiculous the month we’ve had.
“We’ve had no fluency or consistency in terms of game time and that’s difficult to manage. I’m just looking forward to a game because rigour mortis is setting in!
“The Hamilton game came off the back of a great run, then we had the two-week break, then we had Celtic and then another break. It’s been very difficult to keep the players bubbling over.”