Pat FENLON knew things were far from rosy when he signed on at Easter Road for the next two-and-a-half years, rarely is a manager sacked when a team is on the up.
Colin Calderwood’s miserable record of just 12 wins in 49 attempts told its own story. But one wonders if Fenlon fully appreciated the task facing him until he took his seat in the directors’ box at McDiarmid Park to watch his new side in action for the first time.
If Calderwood’s predecessor John Hughes was accused by chairman Rod Petrie of having left “an unworkable legacy,” you can only guess at what description might be applied to the mess which Fenlon has inherited from the former Scotland defender.
A lack of confidence within the squad was readily identified by the 42-year-old Irishman as he faced the Press as Hibs’ ninth manager in a decade, the Easter Road club’s fifth in just four years, but the malaise which has gripped the Leith outfit goes much, much deeper than a dip in morale.
The question being asked is simple. Are the players assembled by Calderwood, having conducted a radical overhaul of the squad deemed to have failed under Hughes, up to the job? It’s one caretaker boss Billy Brown insisted each of them should be asking themselves today.
As Brown, brought in to assist Calderwood in the final few weeks of his unhappy tenure, summed up his second, and last, match in charge of the team, he was typically forthright, pointing out that a club can sack as many managers as they like, but if the players on the park are not playing their part then little will change.
In introducing Fenlon, Petrie had justified the appointment of a man with no direct experience of Scottish football, his five league titles and three cup wins having all come in his homeland, by saying: “If you always do what you have always done you will always get what you have always had.”
Managers have come and gone but now, according to Brown, the players themselves may find their security of employment coming under threat as Fenlon begins to assess their strengths and weaknesses, the first step towards plotting a path to SPL safety, modest enough a target but one which many Hibs fans would gladly take at this particular moment.
Undoubtedly there will be casualties along the way as Fenlon starts the process of reshaping the squad to his liking although, unless there are free agents he can readily identify, he’ll be unable to do so until the next transfer window opens on New Year’s Day.
Hibs have five matches before then for the present incumbents to impress their new boss, something those on show in Perth singularly failed to do although most would acknowledge that within the Easter Road squad lurks talented individuals, gnarled pros who have seen and done it all before and youngsters of great potential.
Such attributes, however, count for little unless they can be pulled together for the collective good, something Calderwood failed to manage although in Brown’s opinion it’s high time the players themselves began to take responsibility for the current situation, Hibs just two points off bottom place and with just three wins in 16 matches.
He said: “I told them at half-time that their jobs are on the line at the end of the day. Hibs are a big club and should not be in this position but they are because of the results. They have not been good and the players have not done well enough.
“You can sack every manager you want but at the end of the day it’s the same players, the same results. They have to get the finger out and start doing something.”
It was an opinion with which skipper-for-the-day Ivan Sproule admitted he couldn’t disagree, the winger saying: “We can’t hide from our situation. We are down at the bottom where we deserve to be right now. It feels low in the dressingroom and we must change that.
“We must give the fans something to cheer. Hibs are a massive club and the supporters deserve better. It’s a test for us all right now. The new manager will no doubt see characters he wants to keep and some he wants to push on.”
The frustration for all within the Easter Road dressingroom has been the fact that glimpses have been seen of what the players are capable of but, sadly, they have been all too brief, rarely lasting the duration of a single match never mind sparking a winning run.
To that end these 90 minutes against St Johnstone merely underlined what has come to be expected of those in green and white. Although far from producing a sparkling performance, Hibs looked reasonably comfortable when Richie Towell’s first goal for the club put them ahead, Saints having looked ponderous and, as captain Dave Mackay admitted, slack in possession even if they did cause a couple of momentary worries for their visitors.
Once again, though, the roof just caved in on Hibs. An all too familiar individual blunder, this time David Stephens allowing the ball to slip through his legs for the waiting Francisco Sandaza, saw Saints level before Mackay swung over a hanging cross from the right for Marcus Haber to put his side ahead before the interval.
Familiar? Think back to the goals which saw Motherwell and Dunfermline to victory at Easter Road in recent weeks and you get the picture. Mackay himself put the game beyond Hibs two minutes after the interval, using the wind which was gusting across McDiarmid Park to “bring in” a curling free-kick which clipped Graham Stack’s left-hand post before nestling in the net.
Hibs knew they were beaten and it showed as their goal survived numerous close calls, the final one being a shot from Haber which thumped off the woodwork although he credited Stack with a decent save.
Brown said: “That performance typified what I have seen from this team this season, even before I came here.
“They are fine while the other team is not pushing forward, as soon as they are put under pressure they collapse.
“We looked all right for the first half-hour and were doing quite well but when St Johnstone stepped it up a wee bit we could not handle it.
“We lost three goals in nine minutes which makes it very difficult to come back. The players need to stand up and be counted, they are not doing it.”
And Brown conceded that if things continue as they are, Hibs will find themselves embroiled in a battle against relegation. He said: “I don’t want to be a merchant of doom and gloom, but you cannot kid anyone on. It’s going to be there [the threat of relegation] if they keep losing but there’s nothing in the league, a couple of victories can put you right up there.
“But we are going to have to do a lot better than we are to get them.”
Brown, who was himself interviewed for the post of manager, finds his own future in question, Fenlon having been joined in Perth by Liam O’Brien, his assistant at former club Bohemians, although he insisted he’d like to hang around to help – but only if he can play a meaningful part.
He said: “I will see what Pat wants me to do, how I would fit in, things like that. I will have a blether with him and see what happens.
“I like it here, I like being in football, I have a lot of enthusiasm for football but I wouldn’t just want to be an ‘add-on’. If I can do something here I would certainly like to stay and do it – but that’s up to Pat, he is the manager.”