As the bells sounded to announce the arrival of 2012, the prospects for Hibs looked as bleak as they had been throughout the year just ended.
Irishman Pat Fenlon had become manager in succession to Colin Calderwood, the former Scotland defender having overseen a woeful 13 months at Easter Road.
The previous season had seen Hibs finish tenth and they were again floundering badly when the club’s board finally took the decision to axe Calderwood, replacing him with Fenlon, the new boss arriving with an impressive record in the League of Ireland, where he’d been accustomed to picking up silverware. Fenlon’s initial few weeks, however, had brought no change in Hibs’ fortunes, with a 3-1 hammering by arch-rivals Hearts on the second day of the New Year, the Tynecastle side even affording the luxury of a missed penalty by Ian Black, while the home club’s goal had come courtesy of Jambos’ defender Marius Zaliukas.
It didn’t bode well, but the opening of the transfer window did, at least, afford Fenlon the first opportunity to begin the task he’d been hired to carry out – lifting Hibs from the malaise into which they had sunk with his sole remit being to ensure survival in the SPL.
Fenlon had already laid some of the groundwork, having signed Eoin Doyle, a prolific striker with Irish team Sligo Rovers, and the new arrival did offer some hope, claiming his first goal in a jittery victory over Second Division Cowdenbeath at Central Park in the Scottish Cup. A week later Fenlon enjoyed his first league win, a narrow 3-2 victory over Dunfermline, again in Fife, the significance of the result becoming clear much later in the season as the battle to avoid relegation became a straight-forward fight between Hibs and the Pars.
Fenlon, naturally, became heavily involved in the transfer market and, by the end of the month, he had jettisoned the likes of Junior Agogo, Akpo Sodje, Victor Palsson, Matt Thornhill and Michael Hart, replacing them with a raft of new faces, although only Pa Kujabi arrived on a permanent contract with George Francomb, James McPake, Tom Soares, Matt Doherty, Roy O’Donovan and Jorge Claros all joining on loan.
Even so, results steadfastly refused to fall in Hibs’ favour, the Scottish Cup providing the only solace as Doyle’s goal saw off Kilmarnock, the win standing out against a background of continued disappointments, defeats by St Johnstone, Rangers, Celtic and Motherwell and a goalless draw with Aberdeen, reckoned by those unlucky enough to witness it to be one of the worst games they’d ever seen, resulting in an inexorable slide towards the foot of the SPL.
Again, the Scottish Cup provided a ray of sunshine, Hibs overcoming another tricky tie as they travelled to tackle Ayr United to earn their place in the semi-finals, and also, in the process, brushing aside the ignominy of their defeat at Somerset Park in the previous season’s competition.
A mini-rush of goals from Garry O’Connor, who had returned to Easter Road at the start of the season and scored so freely as to have the possibility of a Scotland re-call talked about only to see off-field problems consume his season, brought some promise.
Four points from clashes with Inverness Caley – and in the Highlands at that – and Motherwell were gained, while O’Connor scored the opener as Hibs secured a berth in the Cup Final by easing past Aberdeen, with Leigh Griffiths getting the winner.
Twenty-four hours later it became apparent Hibs’ opponents in the final would be arch-rivals Hearts, the first all-Edinburgh Cup final in 116 years, a mouthwatering prospect, but one tinted with more than a degree of apprehension. It was against such a backdrop Fenlon had to focus his players’ minds, adamant nothing had changed and the target remained staying in the SPL.
Narrow defeats by Killie and St Mirren saw nerves fray even further, but Hibs’ worries were eased by a battling win at Pittodrie which set up a Monday night showdown with Jim Jefferies’ Dunfermline at Easter Road, one Fenlon’s players went into knowing victory would settle the relegation issue once and for all.
As Fenlon observed afterwards, Easter Road was rocking, a season-high crowd of 15,281 packed in, as Hibs blasted away any worries with a four-goal blitz, Doherty scoring within five minutes with Doyle, O’Connor and Paul Hanlon allowing the home fans to breath easy for once, safe in 11th place. Hardly an achievement to boast about, but a welcome relief nevertheless for a fan base which had been bracing itself for life in the First Division.
Memories of that night, though, were quickly forgotten as the dream of ending Hibs’ 110-year wait for the Scottish Cup were shattered – and how – Hearts cruising to a 5-1 triumph which will take many years, if ever, for those in green and white to live down.
Little need to go into the hurt and damage done, but many Hibs fans swore they would never be back, while there was an admission from the boardroom that much needed to be done in the way of repairing relations between the club and it’s supporters.
For Fenlon, it was merely confirmation of what he already believed: Hibs needed a root-and-branch overhaul, one which began with another exodus as most of those who had arrived on loan only months earlier were axed along with O’Connor, goalkeepers Graham Stack and Mark Brown, and former club captain Ian Murray.
Fenlon’s reshaping of his squad continued over the summer and into the new season: Isaiah Osbourne sold to Blackpool; David Stephens off-loaded to Barnet and Sean O’Hanlon released, while Callum Booth and Martin Scott found themselves surplus to requirements – for the coming campaign at least – as they were loaned out to Livingston and Ross County respectively.
In all, nine new players arrived, goalkeeper Ben Williams, defenders Tim Clancy and Alan Maybury, midfielders Gary Deegan, Paul Cairney and Tom Taiwo, and veteran Finnish striker Shefki Kuqi. McPake returned on a permanent basis and Griffiths again on loan as did Manchester City’s Ryan McGivern, the squad boosted by the emergence of home-grown youngsters such as Ross Caldwell, Sam Stanton, Danny Handling and Alex Harris.
The likes of Kuqi, McGivern and Taiwo weren’t in place when it all kicked off again, once more on a familiarly depressing note for Hibs, a 3-0 defeat by Dundee United at Tannadice prompting the merchants of doom to predict a third successive season scrapping against the drop. Fenlon, though, admitted his culpability, quickly switching from the 4-2-3-1 formation he’d adopted that day to a 4-4-2, a change which brought almost immediate improvement.
A draw with Hearts on the second weekend of the season sparked a six-match unbeaten SPL run which included twice coming from behind to take a point at Celtic Park, the only blot in that period being a Scottish Communities’ League Cup exit at the hands of Second Division Queen of the South.
Indeed, Fenlon’s players hit the dizzy heights of the top of the table at one point, and although they remained second for a spell, their recent form has been rather patchy, resulting in a slip to fourth although that remains far higher than many might have predicted. And, of course, there was that Scottish Cup win against Hearts, some measure of revenge for events in May and one which ended an unbeaten run of 12 games in the fixture for the Gorgie outfit.
Fenlon has also been working hard behind the scenes, fellow Irishman Dave Henderson being the latest addition to his backroom staff as “football development manager” to head up a revamped scouting system, with other changes less visible also implemented such as painting the away dressing-room green to remind visitors of where they are.
As Fenlon has repeatedly said, Hibs remain very much a “work in progress but, like most other managers, he finds himself in a rush for improvement with his hands tied to a great extent by the economic difficulties caused by the global recession. He knows full well chairman Rod Petrie, after a £900,000 loss for the second year in succession, won’t allow the club to live beyond it’s means, the dangers of doing so very apparent from events elsewhere in Scottish football.
It’s something of a Catch-22 situation for the club, many disenchanted fans wanting proof that the upturn they have seen will continue, while Fenlon desperately needs the money their return to Easter Road on a regular basis would bring to realise that dream on a shorter timescale.
Petrie has been attempting to get that message over since the summer, repeatedly telling fans that, without greater numbers at home gates, cuts, rather than increased spending, will be the way of things but, it would appear, it’s not yet struck a chord with many supporters with crowds at Easter Road having increased only marginally.
While the fans’ focus is entirely on the pitch, there have been changes elsewhere within the club with managing director Fife Hyland and former chief executive Scott Lindsay announcing their resignations, the void left by their departures being filled by the remaining directors as the drive to contain costs continues with the recent AGM having been told some £700,000 in wages had been taken out over the course of the last financial year.
As we move into 2013, Hibs, like all other clubs, can only hope the grim financial climate eases over the course of the next 12 months which, hopefully coupled by growing signs of improvement on the pitch, lead to the higher attendances they crave and an upward spiral as those factors drive each other.