Tam McManus on Hibs: Lennon, Prem hopes & Scotland’s ‘best defence’
One of a rich crop of talents to come through the Easter Road youth setup, Tam McManus made his Hibernian debut in 1999, going on to make 128 appearances.
He scored in an Edinburgh derby, played in a League Cup final at Hampden Park and helped the club to a pair of third-place finishes in the top-flight, their joint-highest placing since 1975.
And with the Leith outfit on the cusp of promotion back to the Ladbrokes Premiership after a three-year exile, Ladbrokes News caught up with the former fan favourite.
Here’s Tam’s view on everything from Neil Lennon’s winning mentality to Hibs’ ‘outstanding’ defence and how the Cabbage will fare on their top-flight return…
Ladbrokes News: Hibs are on the cusp of lifting the Championship title, and can all-but-confirm promotion with victory at Morton on Saturday. The last two meetings have ended level – but do you expect the visitors to pick up maximum points this time?
Tam McManus: Yeah, I think so. They’re so close to the title now, so I’m sure that will spur the Hibs players on. The last game was a bit of a drab 0-0. But there’s still a lot at stake for both teams, so I’m expecting a much more entertaining affair at Cappielow on Saturday.
It makes sense for Hibs to go there and attack – and I think they will. They’ve got the creative quality of guys like Jason Cummings and John McGinn, and combined with the fact that Morton are having a bit of a wobble at the moment, they’re likely to go right at them.
Victory would basically confirm the league title, and I think this weekend they’ll win and completely shut the door on Falkirk and Morton in the process.
LN: Their promotion push has been massively aided by Hibs’ defensive record. Just 21 league goals conceded so far, and 13 clean sheets in the process. Who – and what – has impressed you most in that backline this season?
TM: The two centre-halves, Darren McGregor and Paul Hanlon, have been absolutely rock-solid. That clean sheet record is outstanding, and with David Gray and Lewis Stevenson in the full-back positions, they’ve had a really settled defence all season.
Having that settled backline is a huge advantage, and as a unit, they remind me a lot of that fantastic Arsenal side in the early ‘90s, where you had Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn playing together every single game.
For me, McGregor and Hanlon are easily the best defensive partnership in the Ladbrokes Championship, and actually, I think they’re the best in the country – outside of Parkhead, at least.
LN: At the other end, Jason Cummings has been scoring for fun. But other forwards like Martin Boyle, Grant Holt etc. have also chipped in with some crucial strikes, and produced a raft of chances. Do you think it’s more of a team effort than some people seem to believe?
TM: Yeah, I do. You don’t win league titles through the efforts of one player alone. Obviously, Cummings has been absolutely vital for Hibs this season. They’d have struggled to come close to the form they’ve managed this year without him – he’s been consistently banging goals in, having reached the 20 mark yet again.
The likes of Holt and Graham have scored a few vital goals, as you said. Obviously, Grant scored against Heart of Midlothian – which is a sure-fire way to get the fans on your side! And Martin’s kept the current unbeaten run going with goals in draws against sides like Dumbarton and Dunfermline Athletic.
You’ve got James Keatings chipping in with a few goals as well, and Brian Graham got a few earlier in the season. So, of course, Cummings has been the main man in front of goal – but it’s not only been about him.
LN: A word on Neil Lennon – a man you faced a number of times as a player in your Hibs days. What’s impressed you most about the job he’s done this season?
TM: Getting Neil in was a massive coup for the club. He’s got a brilliant track record, winning three league titles in a row as Celtic boss, and getting them into the last 16 of the Champions League.
One of the key things he has is a winning mentality and an enormous passion for the game. And you can see how those qualities have transferred through to his squad.
Last season under Alan Stubbs, they showed flashes of real quality in the Championship and obviously won the Scottish Cup. But they just failed to get enough consistency, and dropped points in games they should have been winning.
Neil’s added a real hardness to the mentality of the team. The kind of games they were drawing last season have been hard-fought wins this time out. They’ve got a lot of flair in the squad, but they can win ugly and grind out those 1-0 victories as well.
So you have to say that Neil’s done a brilliant job – and I’m sure he’ll continue to build on what he’s achieved so far.
LN: It’s all-but-certain that Hibs will be in the Premiership next season. What do you think is a realistic aim for the club?
TM: First and foremost, I think they’ve got to aim for the top six – and I don’t think they’ll have too much trouble achieving that. You look at what Hearts did last season – they’d just come up, and achieved a top-three finish straight away.
Personally, I think this Hibs squad is at least as good as that Hearts team. So a top-six finish would be a decent achievement, but I could see them going beyond just doing that.
They have a nucleus of excellent players already, and that includes – in my opinion – the best defence in the land beside Celtic. I’m sure we’ll also see a few new additions in the summer, so I really don’t see them struggling at all next year.
Especially so when you look at how they’ve performed against sides like Hearts in the cup competitions this season.
LN: You’ve touched on the summer transfer window. In which areas do you think the manager will look to bring in new guys?
TM: I think he might look to add another player out wide. Martin Boyle’s really made the right-wing position his own during the past few months, and has been performing really well. But I think there’s maybe room for a new addition on the other flank.
I could see Neil adding an extra striker or two as well. They’ve got some good options in that area already, but it’s such a vital position that I think a bit more competition for places could do Hibs some good!
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