Two months ago, Pat Fenlon was widely deemed a satisfactory Hibs manager. Nothing spectacular, but a pretty safe pair of hands who had steadied the ship in his first year-and-a-half at the helm. One month ago, he was a busted flush on the back of a 7-0 pulverising at home to Malmo and back-to-back league defeats by Motherwell and Hearts. Eight points from a possible 12 later and the manager seems to have extricated himself from trouble.
This is the nature of modern football, where job merit can be judged on an almost weekly basis. After the defeat at Tynecastle last month, when Fenlon’s team were being written off as relegation fodder, I wrote that if he could cling on to his job, he was still well capable of guiding Hibs into the top six once his raft of new signings gelled.
For some Hibs fans, the top six is a minimum expectation, but it certainly shouldn’t have been last season, with the Easter Road side having finished 11th the previous year, while also crashing to Hearts in the Scottish Cup final. Anyone paying attention over the last 20 years and more would know that Hibs have no divine right to finish in the top six, especially not in the immediate aftermath of a relegation battle.
The team Fenlon, below, inherited were a brittle lot destined for the First Division. The transition was never going to be a swift one. Yet Fenlon, with a fairly limited group of players, almost restored Hibs to the top six last year. For a supposedly negative manager, it was notable that strikers Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle played the best football of their careers under his charge. Instead of saying Fenlon only got close to the top six because of their goals, is it not possible that the manager played to their strengths and made them better players, a point captain James McPake, angered by criticism of his manager, was keen to make last week.
Reaching back-to-back Scottish Cup finals is a remarkable achievement for any non-Old Firm manager and shouldn’t be discounted easily by Fenlon’s army of critics. Apparently the football’s eye-watering, though. Maybe so, but Hibs, despite romantic claims to the contrary, have generally been a dull, functional outfit ever since the Seventies, with the notable exceptions of Alex McLeish’s reign, when they were able to lure the likes of Russell Latapy and Franck Sauzee, and the Tony Mowbray era, when they were blessed with the emergence of one of the best crops of Scottish youngsters in the modern era. The likes of Alex Miller, Jim Duffy, Sauzee, Bobby Williamson, Mixu Paatelainen and Colin Calderwood were not exactly guardians of successful swashbuckling football at Easter Road.
Fenlon’s style might not be to the purists’ liking, but it was still more effective last season than that at Kilmarnock overseen by Kenny Shiels, widely hailed for his expansive football and mooted among some fans as a possible successor to Fenlon. This season, Fenlon’s side has proved as effective as more vibrant teams like Dundee United, St Johnstone and Partick. A few weeks ago, it was easy for critics to suggest that letting David Wotherspoon leave for Saints was typical of Fenlon’s stifling instincts. That would be to completely ignore the fact that Wotherspoon, for all his talent, had a flaky temperament when the going got tough and generally flattered to deceive, despite being given every chance to nail down a place.
The manager has set about adding a raft of impressive-looking signings, to the point where Hibs now have a much stronger overall squad than the one that punched above its weight early last season. They look a solid bet for the top six and can’t be discounted from a top-four berth.
The main concern for Hibs is their underwhelming home form, but it is hard to escape the feeling that playing in a stadium that is often more than half-empty is doing them few favours. Fenlon’s public profile has done little to aid him either. He is one of the less charismatic managers in the top flight and occasionally cuts an uneasy figure in media gatherings. You rarely catch him bantering with his inquisitors in the way Terry Butcher or Stuart McCall might, and fans or other observers (ie. those inclined to call for managers’ heads) tend to view his intense public demeanour in a negative light.
It is, however, what goes on in the dressing-room that matters most and judging by McPake’s comments last week – they were more forceful than they needed to be if he wasn’t speaking from the heart – it is clear that the men who matter are right behind him. He has also shown remarkable character to bounce back from the two big setbacks in his Hibs reign: the 2012 Scottish Cup final and the Malmo home game.
There are plenty who feel Fenlon should, as a matter of principle, have been sacked on the spot after each of those humiliations, but if a measured appraisal of his entire body of work at Hibs so far is carried out, it is impossible not to conclude that the manager is making steady progress and has earned the right to try and guide his team to new heights this season.