Belfast Telegraph

Neil Lennon off to Euro 2016 with plans to power Hibernian to top

By Graham Luney

Neil Lennon may just have arrived at Easter Road as Hibernian's new manager but by Sunday morning he will be heading for the departures lounge, ready to fly to France and watch Northern Ireland's fairytale continue.

The former Northern Ireland midfielder will be a BBC pundit, offering his expert analysis on the history making exploits of Michael O'Neill and his men.

With the first battle against Poland in Nice coming up on Sunday (5pm), Lennon has little time to start constructing a masterplan aimed at ensuring Hibs' return to Scotland's top flight.

At his official unveiling as Alan Stubbs' successor yesterday, the Lurgan man was grilled on the challenge facing him in Leith but he still made time to send his best wishes to Northern Ireland as they embark on their first ever adventure at the finals of a European Championship.

Lennon won 40 Northern Ireland caps from 1994 to 2002 but he was one of the many gifted performers who were denied the opportunity to sample a major tournament atmosphere.

But he's bursting with pride after watching O'Neill and his men storm to the top of qualifying Group F and after a 12-match unbeaten run the Green and White Army aren't ready to cast aside their 'dare to dream' philosophy.

"I firmly believe they can make it out of the group and that would be a magnificent achievement," said the former Celtic boss.

"Michael (O'Neill) has done a phenomenal job and if they keep playing the way they have been they will be fine. There is a great steel about the team which I like and they have been successful at adapting to different challenges and conditions.

"Ukraine will be a big physical side but a good start against Poland will keep them in great spirits.

"Sometimes the big teams can be shocked in these tournaments but that will depend on how sharp and competitive they are."

The 44-year-old admitted he was "disappointed" not to return to Celtic after the Scottish Premiership champions recruited Carnlough man Brendan Rodgers - but Lennon knows one door can open after another closes.

Hibs remain one of the biggest clubs in Scotland and the Scottish Cup victory, their first in 114 years, has unleashed a new wave of optimism.

While upset at being overlooked by the Hoops, there will be no lingering bitterness as he said: "Celtic appealed to me, but they have picked a really good candidate in Brendan, he's a great manager. What's for you can't go by you. I've got plenty to offer."

Hibernian enter the Europa League qualifying rounds, with their first match on July 14, and Lennon could even return to Northern Ireland if his side are pitted against Crusaders or Linfield in the revamped Challenge Cup next season.

"Everyone has been fantastic here, this is a great club," added Lennon who will be assisted by Englishman Garry Parker, 50, a team-mate of Lennon's at Leicester who was part of his coaching team at both Celtic and Bolton.

"There is huge potential here and it's onwards and upwards hopefully."

By onwards and upwards, Lennon really means promotion.

After agreeing a two-year deal, he said: "There is a good squad of players here and my challenge now is to get Hibs up into the Premiership.

"It's going to be difficult but not beyond us, I'm very excited about it.

"I've always had admiration for the club, obviously from the affinity with my playing days and managing days with Celtic. I know the club very well.

"I've had a look at the facilities, I know the stadium, and the training ground is as good as it gets, and it's a club that I've always had a soft spot for."

Belfast Telegraph