Hibs derby defeat piles pressure on Pat Fenlon

Rowan Vine and Paul Hanlon rue a crucial miss. Picture: Toby Williams
Rowan Vine and Paul Hanlon rue a crucial miss. Picture: Toby Williams
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Pat Fenlon could just as easily have been speaking about Hibs opening match of the season against Motherwell as he offered his thoughts on defeat by Hearts.

“Disappointed, I don’t think we deserved to lose the game,” was the Easter Road manager’s opinion having seen side his flattened by Callum Paterson’s header just as they had been seven days earlier as Henri 
Anier claimed a late winner for the Steelmen.

To be fair to Fenlon he again had a case but in a results driven business it’s the final scoreline which counts, any rational debate as to the merits and demerits of any team’s performance coming a poor second. Add in the humiliation of that Europa League demolition by Malmo and today the Irishman is staring at some chilling statistics, four games played, four lost, 11 goals conceded and none scored.

Grim in anyone’s language and although it is still very early in the season those occupying the Easter Road boardroom will fully understand why there is, once again, a growing unrest among the club’s supporters with Fenlon’s future a hot topic.

Chairman Rod Petrie and his fellow directors have gained a reputation in recent years for being quick to hire and fire, Fenlon arriving as their fifth manager in as many years and although he’s been at the helm only 21 months he’s already outlasted the stay of his immediate predecessors Colin Calderwood, John Hughes, Mixu Paatelainen and John Collins.

But there’s little doubt Fenlon is under pressure and losing, albeit rather unluckily, to a bunch of kids – no disrespect but that’s what manager Gary Locke, with a few expectations, has been left to work with as the Gorgie outfit grapple with administration and the threat of liquidation that has come their way as the penalty for years of excess – isn’t going to help his case.

Fenlon, however, has been backed by Petrie and his board. A reported £200,000 was sanctioned for Swindon Town striker James Collins, with a far a more modest sum agreed with Bradford City for Michael Nelson, while Liam Craig, Owain Tudur Jones, Fraser Mullen and Rowan Vine have arrived with the stated aim of building on last season’s progress – modest as it was 
according to some – and propelling Hibs into the top six.

His plans, though, have been hindered by injuries to Paul Cairney, James McPake, Tim Clancy and, now, Alex Harris. Even so, on paper at least, the side fielded by Fenlon looked to contain far too much nous and experience for the youthful exuberance of a team charged with, somehow, steering Hearts to SPFL safety come May.

It’s nigh on a mission impossible, but one made ever so slightly achievable after this result, the problem for Locke being how he can encourage his youngsters to produce displays such as this on a weekly basis for the next nine months. It is, however, a step in the right direction while their Capital rivals have been left scratching their heads as to why they remain pointless.

The intrigue surrounding the latest derby didn’t detract in the slightest from the occasion. It was typical of these affairs, little football on display from either side, petty squabbles breaking out here and there as the heady atmosphere got the better some on both sides with goalkeepers Ben Williams and Jamie MacDonald each required to make no more than a couple of routine saves.

The loss of Ryan Stevenson, one of Hearts more experienced players early in the game didn’t help their cause but after Williams had taken a swerving shot from Jamie Hamill, Hibs finally began to exert the sort of pressure expected of them although too often, with six players making their derby debuts to counterbalance the inexperience of their opponents, the delivery of the final ball undid any good work which had proceeded it.

As such Collins and Vine had enjoyed little to work on as Danny Wilson and Brad Mackay had all the play in front of them and were invariably able to pick off the aerial passes before they posed any threat.

Collins, though, did begin to show just why he’d been brought to Edinburgh, the striker taking Kevin Thomson’s pass on his chest before turning and firing off a shot which had MacDonald beaten but slipped inches wide of the far post. The 22-year-old was again just off target as he collected a Scott Robertson ball and then he worked himself into a good area after being played in by Vine only to shoot tamely into the arms of MacDonald.

At that stage it was looking more a matter of when Hibs would score rather than if, that feeling growing among the Hibs fans behind MacDonald’s goal as Collins gave Craig the room to deliver an inviting ball across the face of goal and towards the back post where substitute Tom Taiwo was arriving at speed.

But a split-second before he made contact, the ball appeared to kick up off the turf and he succeeded only in driving it into the stand. On such moments are derbies won and lost and so it proved. Hibs seemed to have plenty of bodies in and around the action but somehow Dylan McGowan managed to drive a superb cross in, allowing Paterson to judge his run to perfection as the visiting defenders were caught on their heels to flash an unstoppable header beyond the helpless Williams.

Cue scenes of wild celebration among Hearts players and fans alike as Hibs’ frantic efforts to salvage a point at least came to nought, Paul Hanlon nodding over Nelson’s header from Craig’s corner before Nelson himself headed off target and Vine blasted wildly wide as he took the big centre-half’s through ball first time.

Little wonder Fenlon cut a disconsolate figure afterwards. “We did not deserve to lose it,” he claimed. “I thought at the time they scored we were in the ascendancy and had created a couple of chances.” Asked if he felt there was more expectation on his players because of the situation Hearts have found themselves in, Fenlon said: “I don’t think so. It was a derby and you are expecting to win it no matter what the situation is. There would have been no difference if they had a team full of superstars. It was a game of football, you try to win it and we didn’t deserve to lose it.”

Fenlon was then hit with the expected question regarding his own future, one he’s been confronted with on a number of occasions since the mauling by Malmo. He said: “I have no problem with people looking at my position. I am the manager and I will continue to do that. We’ve lost two games 1-0 but we are not too far away from getting a result. I am happy with the squad I have. Players live on confidence, getting one result on the board breeds confidence and we could have had a result in both games.”