PAT FENLON doesn’t mind a few more worry lines on his brow, but insisted today that he’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that the weight of the world doesn’t rest on his players’ shoulders. The Hibs manager saw his side increase the gap on bottom side Dunfermline to seven points yesterday as a result of their 1-1 draw with Motherwell and believes that an upturn in their fortunes is down to his squad being able to play their football without the stresses and strains that have hampered them in recent weeks.
A top-drawer finish from Garry O’Connor had given his side the first-half advantage against Stuart McCall’s men and it looked as though they would claim all three points until 10 minutes from the end, when Nicky Law hit a late leveller.
It could have been so different if a stunning long-range effort from Tom Soares had gone into the net instead of bouncing back off the top of the bar, but Fenlon conceded after the match that a share of the spoils was just about the right outcome at Easter Road.
There has been a marked improvement in both Hibs’ performances and their confidence levels on and off the park in their last couple of games and Fenlon is convinced that shielding his players from the flak that has been flying about has been vital.
He says that taking the pressure off is the key to allowing some of his less experienced players to come into their own and said: “I make sure that the players are comfortable – it’s my job to be uncomfortable and worry about things.
“We have got some good players and one or two of them came out of their shell a little bit in the game yesterday and played a lot better.
“It is important that we keep that going until the end of the season now and give them that freedom to go out there and play.
“I think that we were up against a very good side and they deserved the point – their second-half performance was very good.
“I am pleased with my own players as well though. I thought that in the first-half we were very good and they showed a bit of confidence from last week.
“Obviously I’m a bit disappointed that we didn’t hang on but a point was probably fair enough.
“There was a bit of a pep in our step after last Sunday, they were maybe relaxed more and that showed in the first half particularly.
“We knew that the games against Inverness and Motherwell were going to be tough matches and we’ve managed to pick up four points from a possible six, which is a good return and we would have been happy with that from the start.”
With so much at stake at either end of the table, you would have thought that the fans would have turned out in numbers but, even though the electronic advertising boards surrounding the pitch had messages in both Polish and Chinese encouraging people to come along and back their sides, the message didn’t seem to get through – there were just over 7000 in the Easter Sunday crowd.
There are still 15 points available before the end of the SPL season and, while Fenlon admitted that the pressure is lessening week by week, he warned that his side can still take nothing for granted in the battle to remain in the division: “Obviously we have got a better cushion now than we did a couple of weeks ago but it’s still not in the bag. There are so many games to go and there are twists and turns in football all the time. It is just important that we stay focused.
“We have got a break from it now with the cup game coming up next weekend so we have got that to look forward to.”
Following Dunfermline’s defeat to Hearts the previous day, Hibs knew that a victory would all but secure their place in the SPL for next season and for long spells in the first half in particular, it looked as though they may well get their wish.
Having earned a hard-fought three points against Inverness last weekend, the only change Fenlon made to their staring line-up was to bring Soares – who had impressed as a substitute at the Caledonian Stadium – in for Richie Towell.
For a number of weeks the main complaint where Hibs are concerned has been their tendency to be slow out of the starting blocks but they looked much more alert from the off and tried to build spells of pressure on their opponents.
The visitors, however, were still the first to carve out a real chance, Law’s corner being met by the head of Tim Clancy, only for the Well player to bullet it straight at Graham Stack.
Hibs had enjoyed more than their fair share of possession and they made it count with a fine goal on the half hour mark when they won themselves a free kick after Ivan Sproule was brought down on the edge of the 18-yard box by Keith Lasley.
Both O’Connor and Leigh Griffiths lined up over it, but it was the former who took the honours, taking a few steps before lashing a stunning ball high into the net at pace and leaving Darren Randolph without a hope.
Five minutes later they carved out another good opportunity when Sproule laid the ball on for Griffiths, who had this time made the run down the right, only for his shot to be gathered by Randolph.
Griffiths then turned provider, picking out O’Connor just inside the box, but this time the big striker’s effort had little power behind it and the Motherwell keeper again made light work of it.
There had almost been a spectacular opening to the second half, Soares picking up from Sproule and switching onto his right foot before producing a stunning chipped effort from fully 25 yards that bounced back off the top of the postage stamp corner with Randolph looking beaten.
From that point on, Motherwell started to enjoy more of the ball and Pa Kujabi was penalised when the referee judged him to have pulled back Chris Humphrey on the right of the box. The free kick was swung in by Tom Hateley and it reached the head of Michael Higdon, but the big striker’s effort was never going to trouble Stack.
There was no doubt that Hibs looked to have a bit more bite back in their side, Soares and Stevenson battling for every ball, Sproule covering every blade of grass and James McPake and Paul Hanlon looking a solid unit in the centre of defence.
Fenlon, too, was pleased with the way that his central defenders performed and added: “They have been very good, in fairness to them. Our back four did well. It was a difficult day for Pa because their wide player [Humphrey] is very good but he stuck at it and that is the main thing.
“We didn’t play particularly great against Inverness last weekend but we won and we played okay yesterday and picked up a point, so it brings us into the Aberdeen game in good form. At the same time though, they had a fantastic result on Saturday against another really good side.
“But we are pleased and this result will give the players confidence going into the cup game.”
Motherwell’s leveller came with just ten minutes of the game remaining when a clearing header from Soares landed right at the feet of Law, who sent a dipping effort into the net. The goal was followed by a late red card for Jonathan Page, the defender given his second booking for a foul on Roy O’Donovan.
Fir Park boss Stuart McCall reckoned that a point was no more than his side deserved, despite claiming that his side had dominated the match.
He conceded, however, that they had done so without causing Hibs keeper Stack too many problems and said: “I thought the goal was coming. On our second-half performance we merited it, we had a lot of possession without having a cutting edge and controlled large parts of the game without giving their keeper any real problems.
“With O’Connor and Griffiths up top, they were always going to be a threat. We weren’t looking for a point – we wanted all three.
“If you’d asked me before the game if I would have taken a point then I would have said no but when you look at the game and the experience that we were missing – we were missing Craigan, Hammell and Jennings – then looking back we can probably be satisfied with the draw.”