For some recent incumbents, the role of Hibs manager has descended into a living nightmare, but ex-Dunfermline boss Stephen Kenny insists fellow Irishmen Michael O’Neill and Pat Fenlon would view leading the Easter Road side as a “dream job”.
Like Colin Calderwood, John Hughes, Mixu Paatelainen and John Collins at Hibs, Kenny saw his reign at the Pars turn sour and returned to manage former club Derry City following a year-long Scottish sabbatical. Far from discouraging the two front-runners for the Hibs job, Shamrock Rovers’ O’Neill and Bohemians’ Fenlon, to follow his own trail from the League of Ireland to the SPL, Kenny says both should be stimulated by the prospect of helping turn “sleeping giant” Hibs into challengers to the Old Firm.
O’Neill played for Hibs for four years in the mid-1990s, while Fenlon, who had a meeting with his board last night to discuss his future, was at Easter Road in March this year when Bohemians lost 2-1 to Hibs in a friendly. Perhaps more pertinent was Dundee United’s failed attempt to secure him as manager last season when Craig Levein left for Scotland, a deal that collapsed when compensation could not be agreed. That would not be a stumbling block for Fenlon this time around, as it is believed he has a clause in his contract that allows him to leave for free.
“Whether Michael or Pat gets it, Hibs is a dream job for them,” said Kenny, 40.
“I remember I was at the League Cup final [in 2007, where Hibs beat Kilmarnock 5-1] and there was an incredible number of Hibs fans. I got a feel of how big Hibs could potentially be. Now, they have a new training ground, a nice stadium in place, and a great support base, so for either manager it would be a great job.
“Michael is an ex-player who has taken Shamrock to the league title and the Europa League group stages, and Pat would do a good job.”
Kenny cites the examples set in the 1980s by Dundee United boss Jim McLean and Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson as proof of how a single, special personality can turn the Old Firm’s dominance of Scottish football on its head. Hibs, he says, last came close to doing that when Kenny was at Dunfermline. He witnessed first-hand Tony Mowbray’s talented young team and the club is once again primed for the right man to lead them to the upper echelons of the SPL.
“Whoever gets it could capture the imagination of what Scottish football needs, someone like a Jim McLean or Alex Ferguson to challenge the status quo,” said Kenny. “It will take people to inspire a club, as when people enjoyed Tony Mowbray’s Hibs team. People got excited about Mowbray’s team of home-grown players. It was an exciting team, but they cashed in on them – that’s just part of football. That was the last real team that looks like it could challenge Rangers and Celtic.
“I think the SPL would be a step up for Michael or Pat. In Scotland, they still have good stadia and a good football tradition – that matters to people. I think there’s great potential in Scotland still, with a lot of dormant support at a lot of clubs and if any individual clubs, like Hibs, get it right, you will see the crowds coming back.”
Kenny arrived at East End Park in November 2006 and although he could not save Dunfermline from relegation, he took them to the Scottish Cup Final, beating Hibs in the semi.
Aged 36 at the time and, as a mild-mannered Irishman untested outside his homeland, Kenny soon felt the pressure of an unforgiving Scottish media and supporters and was promptly sacked 13 months into the job. He was the only non-Scot in the top two tiers in Scotland upon his appointment, but feels that the presence of a more cosmopolitan community of managers nowadays will help suppress fans’ scepticism of foreign managers who “don’t know the Scottish game” and help alleviate pressure on “outsiders” when their team’s form takes a turn for the worse.
“I think it’s a different move to mine,” said Kenny. “I took over Dunfermline at the bottom of the league and had an ageing squad. That was a difficult job and I made a few mistakes.
“When I went, I was the only non-Scot in the Premier and First Divisions. It’s changed somewhat. If Hibs and Hearts get their act together – both are in periods of transition at the moment – there could be a thriving league with them challenging the top two.
“Because of the European results, the Scottish coefficient has come down and that’s a barometer of Scottish football and its respectability. A few years ago, Jimmy Calderwood’s Aberdeen team got to the group stages of the UEFA Cup and played Bayern Munich but lost a lot of players to the Championship. Some people outside Scotland don’t have enough respect for Scottish football, but, at the same time, it’s still got a lot of good things going for it.”
Kenny, right, is of the clear belief that the cream of Ireland’s pool of managers – and the two potential Hibs bosses certainly fall into that category – would be foolish to turn down a move to the green half of Edinburgh.
O’Neill, who began his managerial career at Brechin City, would seal something of a homecoming to his former club, while Fenlon, understood to be working without a wage recently at bankrupt Bohemians, may be glad to escape a club who, at ¤4 million in debt, would be glad in many respects to be able to remove his reported £100,000-a-year contract from their expenses column. If either one “from across the water” was appointed to replace Calderwood, Kenny reckons they would do a good job.
“Pat has been successful in Ireland and built very strong squads,” said Kenny. “There are many similarities between him and Michael: both go for very hard-working, well-drilled, well-organised teams. Neither’s team would be very open, with a team ethic and a sense of teamwork rather than individuals. Both have shown they can manage large squads of players, keeping many players happy. [O’Neill’s] Rovers have 25-26 first team players, and in the past Shelbourne [where Fenlon enjoyed some of his greatest success] have had squads of that ilk.
“Edinburgh is a great football city. There are two potentially big clubs, but I don’t think there’s a connection between the support and the teams so much any more. Hibs are a sleeping giant.”