Fenlon bids to stay clear of firing squad
Published 29/12/2012 | 05:00
PAT FENLON is at a crossroads again. A month after leading Hibernian to their first victory in an Edinbugh derby in 13 attempts, and seven weeks on from experiencing the dizzying view from the top of the SPL, the Dubliner is anxious to address a sequence of results that has seen Hibs win just one of their last seven league games.
With Celtic providing the opposition at Easter Road today and a cross-town trip to Hearts scheduled for next week, Fenlon knows that two more defeats will see the Scottish media's firing squad take aim with both barrels.
Of course, this goes with the territory of being at a club with little money, but great expectations, despite the fact their last title success was something that happened decades – not years – ago.
That's Edinburgh for you, where you either deal with the pressure or find work elsewhere, which is how Fenlon ended up in the Scottish capital in the first place, following Colin Calderwood's unimpressive period in charge.
Appointed in November 2011, it took some imaginative wheeling and dealing – five players were offloaded and seven brought in during last January's transfer window, for Fenlon to engineer Hibs' SPL survival last season. And then out of nowhere, he somehow guided them to the Scottish Cup final.
A turning point? Hardly.
In the first all-Edinburgh final in 106 years, Fenlon was crushed by failure, beaten 5-1, sent to the stands by the referee, humiliated.
"It wasn't a place I wanted to be, but it confirmed what I suspected, that we needed root and branch reform at the club," he recalled.
It arrived during the summer. In a revolving door atmosphere, nine arrivals – including Irishmen Alan Maybury and Gary Deegan – compensated for 11 departures.
Another Dubliner, Dave Henderson, has since joined the coaching payroll, responsible for player recruitment. If nothing else, Fenlon isn't afraid to embrace change.
Yet, tactically, one rival manager – Kilmarnock's Kenny Sheils – doesn't see things that way, describing Fenlon's 4-4-2 system as 'prehistoric'.
Fenlon's response was polite: "I respect Kenny," he said.
"Okay, he said what he had to say, but if you take everyone too seriously in this game then you're wasting your time.
"You've got to accept that's the type of character he is. We're all different with different ways of working. And anyway, the prehistoric system has done alright for us."
In fact, it was a switch from the in- vogue 4-2-3-1 formation which precipitated Hibs 'doing alright,' as Fenlon accepted the blame for an opening-day-loss to Dundee United by altering the shape of his side.
Subsequently, they won seven and drew three – including a come-from-behind 2-2 thriller at Celtic Park – of their next 12 league games to briefly move top of the SPL, before the slump set in.
And so here he is again, facing another difficult week in a profession he mastered in Ireland, where he won five League titles, as well as claiming a few impressive scalps in Europe.
"We were always one result away from a crisis at Shels," remembers Fenlon. "I learned so much about this job there."
That education focused largely on introducing Irish football to the modern-day practices of sports science and advanced statistical models.
Yet, while he embraces new ideas, he remains a disciple of the old-fashioned principle of hard work, which brought him and his Hibs players into training on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
It didn't do the trick against lowly Ross County, though.
Their 1-0 defeat on St Stephen's Day left Hibs 12 points adrift of leaders Celtic.
"You have to look at where Pat has brought them from," said Celtic's manager Neil Lennon.
"They were languishing at the foot of the table for the majority of last season and have progressed impressively this year, staying there and thereabouts in the top four all season.
"That is down to Pat. He has turned around the character of the squad, has recruited well and in Leigh Griffiths, has a player who has been very consistent."
Yet Griffiths, the SPL's top scorer, may be sold by his parent club, Wolves, and Hibs, who slashed their wage bill by £700,000 in 2012, but still posted a £900,000 loss, may not be able to afford the asking price.
"I'm used to working with limited budgets," said Fenlon.
"If Plan A doesn't work, we have a Plan B."
Today his Plan A will be to contain, rather than crush, Celtic's threat.
A fan of the Glaswegians from childhood, Fenlon travelled to Celtic Park for their Champions League victory over Barcelona.
Lennon and he have become friends. The possibility of becoming his successor cannot yet be dismissed. Avoiding defeat, and another crisis, today could be one small step along that particular route.