THREE straight defeats, not a single goals scored and the manager gone. Not the best of weeks to be a Hibs’ fan.
Stephen McManus’ 22nd-minute header from a Lionel Ainsworth corner was enough to give Motherwell a 1-0 win yesterday and cap off a miserable seven days for the Easter Road side.
And yet, those more closely associated with what’s going on within Easter Road appear optimistic that the squad assembled by Pat Fenlon over his near two years in charge of the club is not a million miles away from achieving the success which eluded the Irishman.
Supporters standing on the outside, though, need rather more convincing, Fenlon acknowledging that fact in the wake of his shock departure, claiming the negativity which he’d attracted was dragging the club down and was therefore the reason behind his decision to leave.
While fans welcomed the announcement, the players Fenlon left behind were, we are told, both saddened and disappointed at the surprise turn of events. The Irishman’s departure leaves chairman Rod Petrie seeking yet another manager, Fenlon’s tenure having outlived the likes of John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes and Colin Calderwood.
Having walked less than a month from his second anniversary in charge, Fenlon insisted he’d left Hibs in far better shape than they’d found them and adamant his successor has inherited a squad of players capable of taking the club to where the supporters believe they should be.
Many could say it is an easy claim to make, but, according to midfielder Tom Taiwo, it is one which he and his team-mates are capable of fulfilling if they can get their act together.
The 23-year-old said: “I think when you see the results we have had against the likes of Celtic and the positive results before the Aberdeen game and again today, I think it shows we are more than capable of going on a good, strong streak.
“I think with a bit more composure and a little more nous, we could easily have taken something from the last two games. There isn’t a lack of confidence, we are creating chances and it takes confidence to get the ball and make them. We’ve played good football in both games [against Hearts and Motherwell] and that takes a level of belief and confidence.
“I think it’s maybe time for a little bit of luck to drop our way.”
As to Fenlon’s assertion he’d taken Hibs as far as he could and it was time to stand aside and let someone else attempt to take them on the next step, Taiwo said: “I think there is a massive potential in this squad. I think the results, especially prior to the Aberdeen game, shows we have a good nucleus, a good group of boys, talented players, internationalists all over the park, the quality to push on.”
There are few who doubt the squad Fenlon has left behind is, at least on paper, as strong as any in the Scottish Premiership outwith champions Celtic, but there is a pressing need for those pulling on the jersey to live up to that billing. Yes, there have been glimpses of their abilities, but on too many occasions Fenlon was left to bemoan 20 or 30 minutes here and there, perhaps even a whole half of his team not living up to expectations.
In the first match following his exit, the same traits which epitomised Fenlon’s time in charge of the Capital club were again all too evident, spells of domination negated by an inability to put the ball in the net.
A lack of goals will undoubtedly be the first problem the new man will attempt to address. Hibs’ record in front of goal is simply abysmal. They’ve scored just nine in 12 Premiership matches and have only found the net in seven of 16 matches in all competitions. It’s a damning statistic, one which has left them vulnerable and one which was again amplified at Fir Park.
As in the midweek League Cup final defeat against arch-rivals Hearts, Hibs created plenty of opportunities, but once again their failure to take even one of them proved their downfall, although, on this occasion, Motherwell had many more chances than the solitary strike from Ryan Stevenson which plunged the green-and-white army into despair.
McManus’ towering header was enough, the one-time Hibs target’s first goal for the Fir Park outfit enough to defeat a side under the charge of Fenlon’s assistant Jimmy Nicholl.
Stuart McCall’s men certainly had enough openings after that to kill the game before the interval. Firstly, Henri Anier’s shot hit the inside of Ben Williams’ heel only to screw across goal and wide, before the Estonian, under pressure from Jordon Forster, smacked the ball off the goalkeeper’s shins when through on goal. Just afterwards, Stuart Carswell curled an effort just wide.
Hibs midfielder Scott Robertson, however, passed up a fantastic opportunity to level, weaving his way into the Motherwell penalty area, only to look for one last touch which invited a superb block from defender Shaun Hutchinson, his desire to “make sure” being his undoing.
“We didn’t play particularly well,” admitted McCall, “but between scoring the goal and half-time we had three or four really good chances to kill the game off.”
Like Hibs, Motherwell had gone into this match seeking some solace, having lost to St Johnstone in the league and, again in a similar vein to their opponents, crashing out of the League Cup to Aberdeen.
As the match wore on, their nerves perhaps began to show as Hibs started to dominate. They put in a grandstand finish which saw Hutchinson shown a straight red card by referee Crawford Allan for his trip on Heffernan. Sadly for the Edinburgh side, the foul took place inches outside the penalty area rather than in it and substitute Rowan Vine passed up the resultant free-kick by smashing the ball into the defensive wall when a touch of finesse was required.
Fellow sub James Collins slashed horribly wide when presented with another chance, the £200,000 striker’s confidence-sapping run of misses continuing, before Heffernan saw a an even later netbound shot spectacularly pushed away by goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen as Motherwell held on for the three points.
The onus now is on Taiwo and his team-mates to prove to whoever succeeds Fenlon that those claims of potential aren’t just empty words.