IT’S marked on the map as the A71, but for Pat Fenlon, the route between Edinburgh and Kilmarnock probably feels more like the road to redemption.
Four times the Irishman has taken Hibs to Rugby Park and each time he’s emerged unbeaten, in fact boasting a record of three wins and a draw in Ayrshire. So, in these troubled times, Fenlon could well have been forgiven if he’d looked upon his latest excursion to a ground which is, outwith Easter Road, rapidly becoming something of a favourite destination, as an opportunity to calm troubled waters.
Fenlon, no doubt, would tell you otherwise, that this was just another game of football, there to be won or lost for both sides, but it held greater significance coming at the end of a week when he was given the dreaded vote of confidence by chairman Rod Petrie, that backing read by many as simply a stay of execution.
Another defeat, and possibly even a draw, would simply have piled even more pressure on Fenlon, he and his players labouring under that dark cloud cast on the entire club by that Europa League mauling by Malmo, the record 9-0 aggregate demolition skewing opinion, while confidence has been sapped by subsequent losses to Motherwell and Hearts.
Although he has the obvious backing of Petrie and his fellow directors, evidenced by their willingness to fund an extensive rebuilding of Fenlon’s squad, the manager himself has acknowledged football is results driven and an inability to deliver leads to one inevitable conclusion – the axe.
It’s a question Fenlon has become adept at addressing in recent weeks, turning with a world-weary sigh to reply when asked yet again about his position and Petrie’s comments, which had been made in a face-to-face meeting with disgruntled fans a few days before this match.
He said: “Football is about results. It’s a great game, but when you are not winning it is horrible. But we’ve won and got ourselves off the mark.”
In doing so, Fenlon would probably reflect that his side had possibly played no better or no worse than they had in losing to both Motherwell and Hearts, games which he has argued could easily have gone Hibs’ way. Again, the margin between winning and failing to do so was but a single goal, midfielder Liam Craig grabbing his first two strikes for the club as he and his team-mates, as they had against Dundee United a week earlier, displayed the hunger and desire to wrest something from a game having found themselves trailing for the sixth match in succession.
Little wonder, then, the scenes of jubilation which greeted Craig’s second goal as the former St Johnstone star took advantage of hesitation on the part of Killie’s former Hearts defender Darren Barr as he attempted to deal with Lewis Stevenson’s long ball forward to get between the centre-half and Craig Samson to loft a shot over the stranded goalkeeper.
Most likely it wasn’t the ending those 535 Hibs fans who had made the journey to position themselves behind Samson’s goal envisaged when Barry Nicholson marked his 35th birthday with a spectacular effort, driving the ball into the top corner of Ben Williams’ goal from fully 30 yards.
Fenlon admitted: “I thought we’d been a little bit better than them, but going in a goal down at half-time you think it is going to be one of them days.
“It was a fantastic goal, one we could have done nothing about other than maybe fill that area a little bit better.”
However, unlike a week earlier when Fenlon read the riot act to his troops having accused them of failing to show desire or passion, there were no histrionics as Hibs retired to the sanctuary of the away dressing-room for those 15 minutes.
Fenlon revealed: “I didn’t think there was a lot in the game. I thought we’d passed the ball okay and the only thing that concerned me was their use of the ball in the final third. We needed to be a bit more precise with our passes, the weight of pass maybe was not right and I felt we passed the ball a little bit better at times in the second half.”
Reassured they hadn’t done too much wrong, Hibs grabbed an equaliser within 90 seconds of the restart, Craig peeling off his marker at the back post to meet a cross from his former McDiarmid Park team-mate Rowan Vine and direct a header back across Samson and into the net off the far post.
Williams and Samson pulled off important saves from Mark Stewart and Owain Tudur Jones respectively as the match appeared to be heading for stalemate, a result which probably wouldn’t have done either side much good, but with ten minutes remaining Craig muscled in to claim the winner, an important goal as far as Hibs were concerned, but one which the midfielder insisted needed to be kept in context.
He said: “The players didn’t get carried away when there were some early defeats and we won’t get carried away with this win. There was a lot of panic outside the club, but we went about our business in the same way and there was not a lot wrong in training.”
And with the board having backed Fenlon, Craig insisted the players were similarly behind their under-fire boss. “Obviously the players want the manager to stay,” he said. “There have been a lot of changes this season, so it was always going to take some time for the team to gel.”
It may take some time for all the negativity to dissipate but, as Fenlon acknowledged, having taken a small step with a point against United, his side had taken a big stride in the right direction with this victory while conceding much still needs to be done.
He said: “I’m happy for the players in particular because it has been tough for them. They have taken a lot of flak, but I am also delighted for the supporters because it is not nice when you team is losing.”