PAT FENLON and his players have barely had any downtime to reflect on last season, yet already, just three weeks after losing the Scottish Cup final to Celtic, Hibs’ focus is now firmly fixed on the campaign ahead.
With a Europa League qualifier to prepare for on July 18 – Hibs will find out their opponents on Monday – the bulk of Fenlon’s squad was due to report back for the first full day of pre-season training today.
While the early start may have meant players taking shorter holidays than normal, the Hibs manager feels it could stand them in good stead, as they will have over six weeks to get in perfect condition for their SPL opener at home to Motherwell.
Those players who remain from last season will be joined at East Mains today by new recruits Liam Craig and Owain Tudur Jones. The manager knows he will have to supplement his squad with further additions before Hibs begin their European campaign, but he insisted he won’t be rushed into any decisions and that he and his backroom staff will bide their time until they are certain they have the right players in their sights.
“We are trying,” he said. “The goal is to get players in before that European game, but we won’t rush into anything. It has to be right for us. I know that supporter will be anxious to see what we are doing, but I can assure them that we are working extremely hard to ensure that we bring in the proper players.
“I’m delighted to have signed Ryan McGivern on a longer-term contract and to have brought Owain Tudur Jones and Liam Craig into the club. They are all quality players and ones I think can be really good additions to the squad.
“We’ve been working hard to get the right players in and hopefully there will be a couple more to come. We have got other targets in mind and there are certain areas of the park that we do want to strengthen.
“We know that we need to bring a bit of experience in there too, but we are not going to panic and rush any decisions because it is important that we get the right guys for the right areas of the team.”
A striker will be Fenlon’s priority for the start of the campaign, having lost the goals of both Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle in the summer. Between them they bagged almost 40 in the SPL last time out and provided a number of assists.
While he is looking to add at least one experienced hitman to plug the gap, Fenlon is also keen to see homegrown strikers Danny Handling and Ross Caldwell step up and show what they are capable of. The pair made just over 30 appearances between them last season and, while the majority of those outings were from the bench, Fenlon hopes they can establish themselves as first-team mainstays this term.
The manager also has high hopes for young centre-back Jordon Forster, who broke into the senior side at the end of last season and ended up playing in the Scottish Cup final, and Alex Harris, while Sam Stanton, whose progress was halted by injury during a loan spell at Cowdenbeath last term, is another player the Irishman believes could make a real breakthrough this season.
“It’s not just up front,” he said. “We are looking to strengthen in different areas and we have got to remember that we have got young Danny and Ross who can play in there too. It is important that we keep them in the loop. They got a bit of experience in the first-team last season and I think they really benefited from that.
“Those two boys up front, and young Jordon, did particularly well last season and we hope that they continue to progress. Alex Harris really broke into the team in the second half of the season and Sam Stanton, who has been out injured, also came to the fore.
“Our hope would be that we can push them on even further over the next little while and that they can earn regular places in the team for themselves. They are all good players and they have had a little taste of what it is like to be involved at that level. It is up to them now to step up to the plate and make it difficult for us to leave them out of the side.”
The Hibs players have had just 26 days away from the game since the whistle blew at the end of the Scottish Cup final in May and Fenlon admits that it is probably the shortest break that he has personally experienced in the senior game.
Players who had been carrying injuries were back at East Mains on Monday while the rest were given until today, and Fenlon hopes those extra few days will prove worthwhile.
He continued: “It’s been really short, it’s certainly a bit different from anything I’ve been involved in before.
“It’s only been a matter of three or four weeks since the end of the season because we were involved right up to the last day and it’s been a really quick turnaround for everyone.
“I think that having that extra few days to themselves will have helped them a lot.”
While the players might wish they’d had a few extra weeks off, rather than days, Fenlon feels the short summer break could work in their favour.
“In the long run, I think it might help us out a bit,” he said. “The pre-season is really important, so the planning has taken a bit of time. Obviously the programme that you come up with has to be different than it would be if you had players who had been off for six or seven weeks, or whatever. It’s about getting them to a certain level of fitness and getting some game time into their legs to make sure they are ready for our first competitive match.”
A week tomorrow Hibs play their first friendly of the summer when they visit Ian Murray’s Dumbarton. After that, they head to the south of Spain for a training camp that will see them play games in both Gibraltar and Portugal.
The first of those matches will be against a Gibraltar select and that will be followed a few days later with a test against Billy Davies’ Nottingham Forest. The Championship outfit will provide particularly stiff opposition and Fenlon is pleased with the workout that his players have ahead of them. “The build-up this year will be a bit different for us,” he continued. “Everyone is looking forward to getting started with the first pre-season game, against Dumbarton, and after that we should have a good seven days ahead of us in the training camp over in Gibraltar and Portugal.
“It will give us a chance to work intensively with the players and I think we have organised some really good opposition to play while we are over there. Nottingham Forest are a quality side and it will be a good test for us and we round things off with a game against Raith Rovers when we come back to Scotland.
“Overall, the standard of games that we have organised is very high, so we should be in a good place by the time the European game comes around.”