Jordon FORSTER has admitted to mixed emotions as he took to the pitch at Fir Park. Delighted to finally get his first taste of Scottish Premiership action of the season, but saddened that Pat Fenlon, the man who had given him his big chance, was not in the away dug out in Motherwell.
Fenlon turned to the then 19-year-old to hand him a baptism of fire towards the end of last season, pitching him into the white-hot cauldron of a derby at Tynecastle – a match Hibs won with a Leigh Griffiths wonder strike and a late goal by Ross Caldwell. So well did the big defender do, he held his place for the remainder of the campaign, including the Scottish Cup final against Celtic.
However, a one-match suspension held over from last season, thanks in the main to bookings picked up while he had been out on loan at Second Division East Fife earlier in the season, forced him to sit out the opening game, coincidentally also against Motherwell, and with the arrival of veteran stopper Michael Nelson and a return to fitness of club skipper James McPake, allied to a thigh injury of his own, he dropped down the pecking order.
However, Nelson’s shattered cheekbone and McPake’s red card as Hibs crashed out of the League Cup at the hands of arch-rivals Hearts, in what was to prove Fenlon’s last match in charge, opened the door once more, presenting the 20-year-old with the opportunity to once again stake his claim for a first-team place.
Today, though, Forster can only hope that whoever turns out to be Fenlon’s successor has a tape of his performance, the Irishman having quit less than 48 hours before the trip to Lanarkshire, leaving the youngster as stunned and surprised as anyone given he’d been at Easter Road to conduct a string of interviews with Sunday newspapers to promote the match only minutes prior to his manager’s decision was formally announced.
The whirlwind chain of events, Forster revealed, resulted in him preparing for his return to action in entirely different circumstances to those surrounding his debut only a few months ago.
He said: “A lot of the players in the changing room thought very highly of the manager, me included. He gave me my chance, so I will always be thankful for that and in debt to him for it. But these things happen in football. You can’t dwell on it, you have to go on.
“It’s not nice to see anyone walk away from their job and it’s something I’ve never really been involved in before. There’s been a couple of changes of manager in my time at the club, but on those occasions I was playing lower down the club. When you are in the first team, you are a lot closer to things and when someone you have worked with for two years goes, it is obviously disappointing, but all I can do is wish him all the best for the future.”
Rather than slip quietly away, Fenlon opted for a farewell press conference, during which he insisted he left Hibs in a far better place than he found them, claiming whoever may replace him – and Inverness Caley boss Terry Butcher remains the firm favourite – has much to look forward to as he attempts to take the club on to greater heights.
There may be a few who would raise an eyebrow at such an assertion, but Forster believes Fenlon was absolutely correct. He said: “We’ve got a squad with great potential, definitely. When Pat came in we were fighting relegation, he took us to two cup finals, so I honestly feel he’s left the club in a much better place.
“I know from first-hand experience of the good young lads who are coming through, that we have good, experienced players and that while it’s not quite happening for us on the pitch at the momemt it will start to do so if we keep working hard. Things can change very quickly in football.”
Fenlon’s hasty exit would back Forster’s claim, while his observation that “it’s not quite happening” for Hibs at present could equally be applied to both their League Cup defeat and Sunday’s further setback in which one-time Easter Road target Stephen McManus’s first goal for Motherwell was enough to give Stuart McCall’s side victory.
Forster, however, insisted that as in the latest Edinburgh derby, Hibs had created enough chances to merit at least a point from Fir Park, the Capital club’s miserable record of just nine goals in 12 Premiership matches very much the reason why five of those games have been lost by a single goal.
He said: “Obviously we were very disappointed not to get the result. I felt we played well, very well, in stages and thought we had more than enough chances to get a point or to have even gone on to win the match.”
Motherwell did have chances to add to McManus’s 22nd minute header but, McCall admitted, were left “hanging on” as Hibs battled for parity, Motherwell going down to ten men as Shaun Hutchinson tripped Paul Heffernan inches outside the penalty area.
Forster, who felt referee Crawford Allan got that decision right, said: “I thought we started well, but after the first 15 or 20 minutes allowed them back into the game and they got their goal from a corner kick which, as a defender, is always disappointing.
“I thought we dominated the second half, it was a grandstand finish and we were chucking everything at them but they defended well.
“As disappointing as it was, we just have to keep working hard on the training ground. Football is a tough game when things aren’t going your way, but we have to stick together as a team and work towards this weekend’s match.
“We know the club is under the microscope as it looks for a new manager, but as professionals we have to concentrate on the footballing side and let those higher up take care of that.”
Whether a new manager is in place for the arrival of Inverness Caley – could Butcher be in the home dug out rather than the away one? – remains to be seen, with Fenlon’s assistant Jimmy Nicholl currently in charge of first-team affairs. Either way, Forster admitted he is simply hoping that even although McPake will be available again, he’ll hold on to his place.
He said: “To find bookings I’d picked up on loan at East Fife being totted up to put me out of the first game of the sesaon for Hibs was disappointing. Big Michael Nelson came in, did very well and kept his place and then James came back to full fitness. They are both good, experienced players who’ve played a long time and know the game so I was down the pecking order a bit.
“You don’t like to see team-mates injured or suspended, but we have a squad for that reason and with Michael and James out, Jimmy Nicholl [caretaker manager] chose to pick me. Hopefully I did enough to be there again on Saturday.”