WHAT a difference a year makes. In the last January transfer window, Pat Fenlon, then less than two months into his role as Hibs manager, brought nine new players to Easter Road – the majority on loan – in a bid to stave off the very real threat of relegation from the SPL.
The Irishman’s hand had been forced by Hibs’ poor form and he knew that he had to work quickly if his side were to avoid the drop to the First Division. Ultimately, he did just enough to keep them up, but, for many, the jury was out as his new-look side failed to set the heather alight as hapless Dunfermline took the plunge to the First Division instead. Some fans even called for the Dubliner’s head in the aftermath of the humiliating 5-1 capitulation against Hearts in the Scottish Cup final last May.
Since then, however, the former Bohemians boss has certainly proved his doubters wrong. In the space of just 12 months, Hibs have gone from being relegation contenders to briefly topping the table and challenging for a place in Europe. It has been a remarkable turnaround for the Easter Road club and former Hibs defender Craig Paterson believes the fans have finally been won over by the determined Irishman.
Paterson, now a radio pundit, said: “I think the fans are pleased because they can see what Pat is trying to do, and they also realise what a difficult job it is. I think that in the summer he had more time to sit back and think about it. When he arrived at the club, something had to be done and quickly. The only way that he could do that, with little or no money, was to go through his contacts and bring in the best players that he could on short-term deals. He had to hope that the players he brought in would help dig Hibs out of the situation that they were in and they did manage to do that.”
Paterson expects Fenlon to perhaps bring in one or two new faces, particularly in attacking areas, during the current transfer window, although he knows there will be no wholesale changes like those made a year ago when, of the nine players brought in, only Pa Kujabi and Eoin Doyle were signed on permanent deals.
“The club reported a loss towards the end of last year and they are still spending more than they would like, so you can only buy in a specific market and you have to be as shrewd as possible,” said Paterson.
“If there are a few little gems out there, then great, because I don’t think that they are in a position to burst the bank. There will be a wage structure that they don’t want to break, so it is really difficult for the manager to provide success on a budget, but that, unfortunately, is the situation they are in right now. The fact that they have started the season well and that they have points on the board puts them in a really good position.”
Like anyone else who watches Hibs on a regular basis, Paterson acknowledges that the key piece of business must be to try and extend Leigh Griffiths’ stay in Edinburgh.
“Leigh scored 13 goals in a short period of time and then when he stopped scoring the results dried up a bit,” said Paterson. “I don’t think you can underestimate how important he is to this side – just as the likes of Niall McGinn or Steven Thompson are to Aberdeen and St Mirren. If you took those two out of those sides, that is a lot of goals and replacing them would not be an easy task.
“From the fans’ point of view, the prize would be to get him tied up for the next couple of seasons, and if he does sign on that is a big boost. It might even persuade those who are swithering about joining Hibs to sign on the dotted line because it would be a real sign of ambition. The supporters have really taken to him and he obviously loves playing his football at Easter Road.”
Aside from Griffiths, Paterson feels Hibs could do with adding a little more firepower to their ranks. “I have seen Hibs on a number of occasions this season and they could really do with a big striker to take the weight off up front. I would imagine that is the main area that they would like to strengthen and maybe another player in the middle of the park who could offer them a few goals.”