For the third season in succession Hibs lost their opening game of the new season and, again, without scoring a goal. A somewhat bleak statistic for Pat Fenlon to contemplate, particularly in the wake of that Europa League mauling by Malmo which saw his side concede nine times without replay over the two-legged tie.
Fenlon, though, had an answer for those already sharpening their knives in anticipation of some bloodletting at Easter Road, pointing out how a heavier defeat by Dundee United at this time last year was followed by a battling draw with Hearts, that result the springboard for a season without defeat in five Capital derbies. Today, Fenlon’s players face the same scenario, defeated in their opening game by Motherwell and with their Edinburgh rivals next up, the only difference the opening derby of this season will take place at Tynecastle where Gary Locke’s players find themselves in the exact same situation they were in before yesterday’s opening game against St Johnstone, namely 15 points adrift of the rest thanks to having plunged into administration.
So who is under the greater pressure? Hibs or Hearts. Or, to make it more personal, as far as the green half of the city is concerned, Fenlon?
It’s a question the Irishman has already had to answer over the course of the past few days but one which he met head on once more after a chorus of boos, brief as it was, reverberated around Easter Road following substitute Henri Anier’s late winner for the Steelmen. Fenlon argued the reaction had been one more borne out of frustration than anything else, reasoning that had Scott Robertson’s sweetly struck volley 20 minutes earlier not been met by an equally impressive save by Motherwell goalkeeper Lee Hollis then those self-same supporters would have been heading home in a mood to match the sunny weather rather than under a dark cloud.
“As a supporter you are never happy when you lose a football match,” insisted Fenlon who questioned whether the boos were directed at him or the team. “That’s the way it is and you have to be big enough to take it on the chin and move on to next week.”
Nevertheless, Fenlon is well aware of the growing unease among the Hibs support, the need for some positivity to be injected into a club which over the past ten days or so has taken something of a kicking following the humiliation of Malmo, replying when asked if it was important to give the fans “something back” on Sunday: “We’ll go there and try to win, same as the last time we were there, it’s that simple.
“But it’s the three points I am more interested in and the supporters will enjoy it if we win.”
And to that end Fenlon insisted that amid the disappointment of losing again, there were positive signs which should be acknowledged rather than ignored in favour of dwelling on the negatives.
The downside, he admitted, was the manner of the goal lost, Motherwell substitute Anier latching onto Shaun Hutchinson’s headed clearance which sailed over a flat-footed defence before racing away and steadying himself to slide the ball beyond goalkeeper Ben Williams,
His side hadn’t taken heed of a warning only four minutes earlier as John Sutton found himself in similar space to meet Ian Vigurs’ long ball forward, only to see Williams get down to push his shot aside before then tipping Stephen McManus’s close-range header from the resultant corner over his bar.
Fenlon said: “It was a sore one to take because I do not think we deserved to lose the game. When you lose it to a poor goal from our point-of-view you are more disappointed and maybe, of course, you forget the good things that went on. There was some good stuff.” Hibs were certainly more solid at the back than they had been in that torrid second leg against Malmo despite a defensive crisis which saw James McPake, Tim Clancy, Jordon Forster, Ryan McGivern - although he did make the bench - and Bradley Donaldson all sidelined for one reason or another.
New signing Michael Nelson stepped in alongside Paul Hanlon to nullify the threat of John Sutton while in front of them Kevin Thomson, Scott Robertson, Owain Tudur Jones and Liam Craig were all alert to the threat of James McFadden as Motherwell’s prodigal son took up a central role behind the front men.
“I thought we dealt with that quite well,” said Fenlon, “We defended well but were then done by a long ball when we were on the attack, that’s probably the most frustrating thing. It’s concentration, we were caught ball-watching instead of being aware of what is around you. Ben made a good save then the same thing happens for the goal.”
While it was a good, workman-like performance from Hibs, there remains the concern as to where the goals are going to come from, three games without finding the opposition net and, on this occasion, other than Robertson’s volley and a Thomson shot which Hollis saved well down at his post, there wasn’t much else on offer in terms of well-worked, clear-cut chances.
With Rowan Vine suspended, £200,000 signing James Collins was asked to fulfil that thankless role of lone striker which the 22-year-old did well, ever willing to come short to take the ball with his back to goal or to drift from flank to flank in a bid to stretch the Motherwell defence. But he got little change out of Hutchinson and McManus, particularly when he often found his nearest team-mate when he was in possession was 20, 30 or 40 yards away.
The presence of the vastly more experienced Vine at his shoulder will undoubtedly be of assistance as Collins finds his feet in the Scottish Premiership, the good news for Fenlon being that both he and Forster will be free of suspension for the trip across to Gorgie while, presumably, McGivern will also come into contention for a starting place.
Fenlon added: “James put in a tremendous shift. We could have done with Rowan as we could have changed our shape a bit and we’ll have a different dimension when we have him back. We played well, we were disappointed to lose. Last season we started by losing 3-0 against Dundee United and then went on a fantastic run. That’s the target. We were much better against Motherwell, who are probably the second best team in the league, than we were last year at Tannadice.”