IBROX, I’ve missed you. Five years after his last visit, Neil Lennon said last night that he was savouring his return to Govan this afternoon as manager of Hibernian. While he could hardly fail to acknowledge the “darker side” to his visits to this stadium – the hatred and venom so often aimed in his direction – the Northern Irishman also said he had missed the theatre of it all. While this match-up would be potent enough without his involvement as it is the first meeting between these two teams since their powderkeg 2016 Scottish Cup final, Lennon conceded that part of him will lap up being centre stage again, the archetypal pantomime villain.
“Yeah I have missed it,” he said. “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, and there is a darker side to it sometimes. But hopefully it can all be kept within the confines of the game.
“I do enjoy it [going there],” he added. “Yes, 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.”
Since his first visit there in April 2001, a 3-0 win which put the gloss on Martin O’Neill’s first season at the club, Lennon has run the full gamut in Govan. He feels he largely has more good memories than bad ones. Which is perhaps why the times that really stick in the memory are when things didn’t run to plan. Receiving his first-ever SPL red card after the final whistle from Stuart Dougal there in 2005, being paraded, arm in arm, by Martin O’Neill in front of the away fans with Martin O’Neill after a 2-0 defeat in November 2004. Being a manager offers a different kind of experience, but his last visit there was no less noteworthy, ending with him watching his nine man side go down 3-2 from the media room as they failed to clinch the top flight title against Ally McCoist’s post-administration Rangers.
“I do [think the sum of my experience there is positive],” said Lennon. “I did okay there as a manager. Had a couple of losses but won a few times as well. We had a great performance in the cup there when we were down to 10 men – we took Rangers to a replay and won it. And I won there a few times as a player. So I’ve had some really good days at Ibrox.
“There have been a few surreal things happen to me there over the years – going out on the pitch with Martin, being sent off after the game by Stuart Dougal; that really pleased Gordon Strachan, that! I’ve had great occasions there. Beachball Sunday, that kind of thing. It’s all been part of the drama. You hear some quips from the crowd. You try to put on a straight face but sometimes you can’t help but snap. It is the mock outrage you see. This is different. I’m going there with Hibs. But there is still a good rivalry there.
“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 the parameters in which I’m allowed to work. I know I can’t get too emotional. And I’m sure I won’t.”
Lennon, of course, knows that it is his players who really are centre stage this time, not him. He is well aware that this is an emerging rivalry within Scottish football, born of events which pre-dated his arrival. If the seed of the enmity were sown in the manner these two sides vied for the Championship, they exploded with that incendiary Scottish Cup final. Having participated in all that back story, though, Lennon feels that his side are experienced enough now to deal with the occasion, even if he feels like a bit of a fraud telling them not to get too emotional at times.
“This comes obviously off the back of the cup final, but that’s not really in my thinking at all,” said Lennon. “That is just a historical event now. You’ve got two different managers and more or less two different sets of players.
“I’ve not met Pedro but he comes across as a gentleman, speaks very well,” said Lennon. “Yeah, he’s had some ups and downs. But it’s a difficult job. He needs time. They’ve allowed him to spend a bit of money – and he’s recruited well. They look stronger. But they have to be. Last season was unacceptable from their point of view. The spine of the team now looks stronger. But it’s very early days to judge.
“What you don’t want – and this is a bit rich coming from me – is anyone getting over-emotional. Ibrox is a great amphitheatre to play in, and you’ve got to thrive on that. And I think we’ll be fine. We’re not just going there to make up the numbers.”