Pat Fenlon has been under pressure before, but this time it’s different. The little Irishman rode out the storm earlier in the season amid calls for his head as Hibs made a miserable start to the season, defeat in the opening derby of the season at Tynecastle coming hard on the heels of that Europa League humiliation by Malmo.
Throughout that troublesome period the fans made their anger well known, even going as far as to threaten a protest outside Easter Road to vent their frustration. It never quite got that far, but today Fenlon can be in no doubt as to the depth of feeling, a sizeable and vociferous gathering letting rip having seen Hibs lose yet again to their Capital rivals.
Defeats in derbies are, of course, nothing new, and Fenlon isn’t the first Hibs manager to have been caused grief by Hearts, although the notable feat of negotiating five such fixtures last season without being beaten is less likely to be mentioned than the fact he’s now won just two of ten clashes with the mob from Gorgie.
If going down to the financially-stricken Jambos, a club forced to field a bunch of kids and battling against a 15-point deduction having crashed into administration, wasn’t bad enough, last night was the breaking point for those who congregated outside the West Stand for a good hour-and-a-half after the final whistle to call for Fenlon’s head, chanting “This is not acceptable.”
It all threatened to turn ugly as the players attempted to leave the ground, forced to run a gauntlet of anger while at one point a bottle was thrown as one car was driven away. Whether Fenlon witnessed the scenes from a hidden vantage point we don’t know, but going down once again to a Hearts side said to be demoralised having been battered from pillar to post in recent weeks, brought all the raw emotions boiling to the surface.
The supporters’ reaction was, Fenlon insisted, understandable and “part of football”. He said: “They are disappointed, they have lost to their big rivals and gone out of the cup. I understand that. I understand the frustration, that’s part and parcel of football.”
Otherwise, Fenlon claimed, the fans had been “tremendous, different-class” with him since he arrived in Edinburgh almost exactly two years ago. There is, however, a growing number of supporters, the vast majority of whom slipped away home or for a drink to drown their sorrows rather than join the noisy throng who remained behind, who are becoming less and less enamoured with the manager.
For all the changes Fenlon has made in the playing staff, ten more signings made over the course of this summer – along with the comings and goings of the three previous transfer windows – have, many feel, led to little discernible improvement even although Hibs rose from the 11th place finish of his first season to seventh. Back-to-back Scottish Cup finals have also been achieved although they, too, have brought little but misery, the mere mention of May 2012 enough to send any Hibs fan into a cold sweat, while last season’s trip to Hampden proved equally fruitless.
At the heart of much of the complaints is that the current team, and their immediate predecessors, don’t play in the “Hibs way”, with little, if any, panache or swagger the fans associate with their side.
Paradoxically, though, amid the despair of losing a match which most saw as Hibs’ best chance of administering a salutary lesson to their near neighbours, Fenlon’s side did produce a performance, at least for the first 30 minutes or so, which would have had many recalling bygone days. In that spell Hibs had Hearts on the ropes, the bookies’ odds of 3-1 on Gary Locke’s side looking rather stingy as the Easter Road outfit threatened to simply blow them away.
Only five minutes in, Paul Hanlon rose to power a terrific header past goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, only to see it smack back off the base of his left-hand post. That was a sign of things to come, Hibs’ dominance such that Locke’s kids struggled to reach the halfway line, an opening goal looking certain – and sooner rather than later.
MacDonald, however, had one of those nights a goalkeeper dreams of, doing well to block Scott Robertson’s shot while James McPake’s effort from the rebound was knocked wide by a team-mate before the goalkeeper somehow got down to get his right arm to deflect another low effort from Robertson onto his bar and to safety.
A James Collins shot was pushed round the post and Hanlon only managed to loft the ball over after a poor punch from MacDonald – a rare error on his part – had landed at his feet.
But three sides of Easter Road were stunned into silence as Ryan Stevenson, rated highly doubtful having suffered a knee injury at the weekend, fired Hearts into an unlikely lead.
A poor headed clearance from McPake – later sent off, correctly in Fenlon’s judgment, for a two-footed lunge on Callum Paterson – was picked up by Jason Holt and transferred to his team-mate, who turned and blasted a shot beyond a bemused Ben Williams.
It was a priceless strike which allowed Hearts to station nine men between MacDonald and the ball, leaving Stevenson to operate alone up-front, the visitors secure in the knowledge that Fenlon’s side lack pace on the flanks, an inability to hit the bye-line and get behind their opponents’ back four and, when forced through the middle, don’t have the craft or guile to prise open a packed defence.
Fenlon did make changes, surprisingly putting on young Ross Caldwell, a veteran of only 11 minutes of first-team football in the past two months and a forward in a similar vein to the player he replaced, Collins, who had struggled again to make much of an impact, and then French kid Abdellah Zoubir who had only flirted around the edges having started against both Celtic and Aberdeen.
Hibs were to enjoy one final opportunity, a ricochet seeing Rowan Vine, another who has yet to win over the support, find Liam Craig in space, unmarked and only eight yards out. But the club’s leading scorer – and the hat-trick hero of the previous round’s win over Stranraer – who also had Robertson free to his right, decided to take a touch rather than shoot first time, thus allowing MacDonald to smother.
Fenlon may have claimed, and with some justification, that his side had done everything but score – few believing that if they’d claimed one of those early chances they wouldn’t have run out easy winners. Goals, though, have proved a rare commodity for Hibs this season, just nine scored in 12 matches against Scottish Prem-iership sides.
And that inability to turn chances into goals is what proved to be Hibs’ undoing and one which again turned up the heat on Fenlon, with the supporters looking less and less likely to forgive.