Dundee Utd 3 - 1 Hibernian: Panicked Hibs fold meekly

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Ahead at half-time, Fenlon’s jittery charges implode all too easily as United end up cruising to victory

PAT FENLON may insist the job is no tougher than he expected, but one thing is certain – it ain’t getting any easier.

The Irishman was well aware everything wasn’t right when he arrived at Easter Road. Clubs don’t usually sack managers well into the season when things are going well, but now he’s acutely aware of the enormity of the task facing him.

Even during the latter stages of Colin Calderwood’s reign, optimistic noises were being made of a top six finish and perhaps the possibility of ending the season as one of the SPL’s four leading sides. Such claims were viewed by many through a jaundiced eye and, unfortunately, the sceptics have been proved right.

Rather than a renaissance, it’s been a case of more of the same, to the point where Hibs today simply face a fight for SPL survival, locked at the bottom of the table with Dunfermline with only goal difference in the Edinburgh club’s favour.

The pair are now in dire danger of becoming detached from the rest of the pack, a bleak mid-winter for both as they battle to keep in touch with those ahead of them while nervously glancing over the shoulder at how the other is faring.

It was the Pars’ victory at Easter Road at the beginning of last month which finally signalled the end for Calderwood, his 13 months in charge having provided, with a few exceptions, unrelenting misery for the Hibs support.

Sadly for Fenlon, his tenure has begun in exactly the same way as his predecessor’s, with three straight defeats leaving Hibs now back exactly where he found them as he watched his first match away to St Johnstone when he left caretaker boss Billy Brown in charge.

The intervening fixtures, while ending in disappointment, had at least produced some signs of promise, a Hibs side looking far more organised and resilient, Fenlon’s 4-2-3-1 formation presenting opponents with a resolute barrier between them and goalkeeper Graham Stack although, perhaps, at the expense of an attacking panache with a sole attacker deployed.

The three goals conceded against Rangers and Aberdeen included two penalties, Stack having hardly dirtied his gloves on either occasion. But this time round Hibs were back to their old ways. Ahead through the deftest of touches from Leigh Griffiths, who was unlucky not to add a second as Dundee United goalkeeper Dusan Pernis threw himself high to his right to claw away a precisely placed header, the Capital side simply capitulated as their hosts upped the pace.

Fenlon had witnessed exactly the same scenario at McDiarmid Park, only this time United had to wait a little longer before taking advantage of their opponents’ propensity to implode. But once Johnny Russell had equalised, the final outcome was in little doubt.

A double from skipper Jon Daly followed, although both goals were entirely avoidable, Hibs anxiety seeing them “camp in” around their own penalty area, resulting in the striker being able to glance Paul Dixon’s cross home from close-range rather than being forced to meet the ball much further out.

And while Fenlon’s initial response to Daly’s second was that he was offside, his opinion will undoubtedly have changed having reviewed a DVD of the incident, Paul Hanlon a split-second late in following his fellow defenders out as former team-mate John Rankin returned a clearance to leave his side’s top scorer with the simple task of finishing.

A naturally disappointed Hibs manager said: “It is becoming a regular thing, taking the lead in a game then going on to lose it. Once we lost the first goal we dropped deeper and deeper. I thought we did well in the first half, but didn’t defend properly after that.

“Their first goal was well-worked, but the second was hard to take because we had chances to clear it. We should have squeezed up so Daly was heading it from further out.”

Disappointed, but nothing new for Fenlon, who went on: “When we concede a goal we look like we’re nervous. It’s nothing different to what I have watched since I came here. All we can do is keep working hard and hopefully nick a win so the confidence comes back again.”

Hibs, though, have lost that winning habit, just three League victories all season and only four in their last 29 SPL matches – little wonder there’s a sense of disillusionment among their supporters. Calderwood, of course, revived the club’s fortunes to some extent when his raft of January signings prompted a run of five successive wins, results which removed the threat of relegation although, ultimately, his side reverted to type, the soft touch which, one would imagine has opposition teams rubbing their hands in anticipation of running out to confront those in a green and white shirt.

Fenlon has already started his overhaul of the failing squad he inherited. Calderwood signings Junior Agogo and Matt Thornhill having already been told they can go – although Hibs have repeatedly refused to confirm what everyone knows – with Sligo Rovers goal machine Eoin Doyle his first signing.

Others will undoubtedly follow, putting the futures of those currently employed at risk as midfielder Martin Scott admitted. An arrival last January, the former Livingston and Ross County star said: “It will be up to the manager, if he doesn’t think we’re good enough then he might need to offload people and bring other ones in.”

Fenlon has already insisted everyone, including himself, is under scrutiny, but he hinted that Scott’s thinking wasn’t so far from the truth in saying: “We have a lot of players out of contract at the end of the season and the position we’re in is not good enough.”

Whether Fenlon can wait until the end of the season before conducting radical surgery is debatable, Wednesday night’s clash with Inverness Caley and the trip to East End Park in the middle of next month taking on greater and greater significance in the wake of this latest disappointment.

At the moment, though, there’s little more Fenlon can do than continue to work hard on the training ground as he acknowledged. He said: “All we can do is keep working hard and hopefully nick a win so the confidence comes back again.

“We are conceding too many goals and we need to stop panicking. The players have to be stronger. It’s hard to take many positives when you get beat, but I thought in the first half we played okay. But we seem to be okay for 50 or 60 minutes but then drop out of it. It was the same in the St Johnstone game.”