Just two months ago, a startled Pat Fenlon sat in the Hibs media room trying to make sense of the 7-0 humiliation he and his team had just been subjected to at the hands of Malmo.
The manager looked for all the world a doomed man and, understandably, was up out his seat and off like a shot when the inquisition had finished.
Yet, here we were in the same place, with Fenlon in that same seat, in far more relaxed and harmonious circumstances, discussing Hibs’ landscape-changing revival ahead of today’s trip to face Scottish Premiership leaders Inverness.
It was notable that the manager, who has generally kept the media at arm’s length since arriving in Scotland nearly two years ago, stayed behind for coffee and a casual chat with journalists after the pre-match briefing had finished. He was in good form and looked like the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders following that harrowing start to the season.
With the doom and gloom of summer now having lifted, the autumnal outlook is a whole lot sunnier around Easter Road. Instead of fighting for their manager’s future and to stave off premature talk of relegation, the Hibs players are battling to keep their places in a winning team and to ensure their six-game unbeaten run proves the catalyst for a successful season.
“There’s a real buzz about the place at the moment,” noted Fenlon. “Training has been good and we’re starting to get a lot of bodies back so there’s real competition for places. We’ve got a good squad and we’re really looking forward to playing matches.”
The manager always knew things would come good as long as he was given time to ride out the storm which ensued when the Malmo thumping was followed by consecutive 1-0 defeats against Motherwell and, crucially, Hearts in the first two league games of the season.
“It’s down to certain players finding form, competition for places and decent partnerships developing over the pitch,” Fenlon said of his team’s impressive resurgence. “The first two league games, which we lost, could have gone either way, but we’ve slowly got better as the season’s gone on. I knew they were working hard and were just a result away from starting a bit of a run. We’ve done that and now we want to maintain it.
“When you get to three games unbeaten, it’s decent, but the challenge is then to go and make it six, seven, eight unbeaten. That’s what real good runs are and they breed confidence. We’ve got three or four real tough games coming up, but it’s good that we’re going into them with confidence and in form.”
Only Celtic have taken more points than Hibs over the course of the last five games and, with the squad possessing more strength in depth than most in the league, there is a feeling that they are primed to challenge for the European spots. Fenlon knows that, with the likes of Inverness, Motherwell, Aberdeen, Dundee United and St Johnstone looking like they mean business, it will be a battle even to make the top six. When asked if Hibs were genuine contenders for second spot, Fenlon remained pragmatic, but certainly didn’t dismiss the possibility of finishing as runners-up.
“We feel we’ve got a good squad,” he said. “I said at the start of the season we want to be in the top six. If we get into that, we’ll then set ourselves different targets. Considering where we finished over the past couple of seasons, our priority is to finish in the top six and give ourselves a chance to advance higher up the table. It’s a very tight league. You saw that last year when there were two or three teams going into the last weekend before the split with a chance of getting into the top six. I think it’ll be like that this season again because there’s so little between so many sides.”
Hibs have a chance to make ground on one of their main rivals for a European spot when they visit an Inverness side who head Celtic on goal difference at the top of the table. “Inverness away is as tough as anywhere,” said Fenlon. “They’ve had a settled side over the past few years which has helped, but Terry Butcher’s done an incredible job up there. They have a tremendous team spirit and they’ve got some good players. They’ve got a really good system, where they’re hard to play against, but they score a lot of goals as well. They’re a decent side and we know we’re going to have to play really well to get a result up there.”
Owain Tudur Jones is poised to return to the Hibs squad after missing the last three games with a groin injury. The Welsh midfielder was viewed as a major loss to Inverness when he left in the summer to join Hibs, but his Easter Road career has yet to catch fire. Fenlon has no doubt the imposing 28-year-old will come good, however, once he gets a sustained run in the team.
“Jonesy’s been out injured for the past few weeks and he had a little niggle earlier in the season,” the manager said. “Sometimes it takes some people a bit longer to settle at a new club, whereas others come in and hit the ground running. We’re also playing a different type of formation to what he was used to, but he’s a very, very good player and he’ll be a good addition to us over the course of the season.
“He brings a lot to us when he’s in the team and he’ll probably play more games than he misses over the course of the season.”