WHEN Pat Fenlon leads Hibernian out at a packed Hampden Park on Saturday in the Scottish FA Cup final against Edinburgh rivals Hearts, he will be living the dream -- even if the colour combination doesn't quite match.
A lifelong Celtic fan, Fenlon mused last week about the venue and the day that lies ahead: "I was never involved at Hampden until the semi-final against Aberdeen, so one out of one is a good start. It's a great stadium with a fabulous history. I attended five or six cup finals there supporting Celtic in the last 15 years and I was even there when they beat Hibs, the last time Hibs were in the final.
"It's incredible just to get to the final. When I joined Hibs in November, this was the only trophy they still had a chance of winning, so leading my team out at Hampden is the stuff you dream about, even if I dreamed about a different green jersey. It will take a lot of sinking in on the day."
It certainly makes a change from his early days at Easter Road, when his first five games yielded one point, and Hibs dropped closer to the dreaded drop from the Scottish Premier League.
Fenlon, who was taking charge of a team in the middle of a season for the first time, inherited a squad short on confidence and with all the bad habits that brings. Instead of passing the ball, hoofing was the order of the day, as nerves got the better of footballing instincts.
"The club was in decline for three seasons and they were on a run where they had lost a lot of games," Fenlon recalled. "The players were getting knocked and as a result there was a massive loss of confidence. Their home record wasn't great and that gets the crowd on your back and players became nervous about playing at home."
The turning point, according to the Dubliner, came with the transfer window in January. "It came quickly after I arrived, there was no money, and it was a case of seeing what we could pick up free and on loan. I released seven players as well. That was a gamble but I needed to take drastic action."
Using contacts he had developed from coaching courses and playing friendlies against British teams, he came up with some interesting signings. It wasn't just a case of heading back to Ireland, he spread his net far and wide.
"I didn't look for too many young players," he said. "I had plenty aged 22-23 so I needed older, experienced leaders to try and mix it up. I was lucky to sign good pros and they have helped in the dressing room because they hadn't got the history (of rejection by the fans).
"James McPake was my best signing. I made him captain because I needed somebody of strong character in the dressing room. We already had some strong characters, but not in the right way like James. He's what you want as a captain. He's on loan from Coventry, where he had just come back after a long time out with injury. He has definitely improved us."
He made three Irish signings, all with League of Ireland backgrounds.
"Of the Irish players, I believe that Matt (Doherty) has a bigger future than Hibs. I pestered Mick McCarthy about him and it's worked out well for Matt, because he's played a lot of football, and for us. I would like to keep him, but Wolves have a new manager coming in who will want to take a look at him, but you never know. Eoin Doyle hasn't played a lot, but he's a good player and can score goals. Next year will be a massive season for him."
Did it take long for him to be accepted at the club? "No, not really. I have a belief in what I do and gradually the players have got to know me. Things at the club had to change and I have been implementing that change and will do more in the summer. It's all on the football side, to make sure that things will change for the benefit of the club. It's a great club, well run, and everything is in place for it to improve."
As a player, Fenlon was a combative midfielder, and that side of his nature didn't disappear when he became a manager. "Over my 10 years as a manager there have been a fair few training ground squabbles, as any of my former players will tell you, but it's usually only verbals. I like that because it shows that the players care. What was written about me having a physical bust-up with a player here was lies, the reporter didn't bother to check his facts, and he has apologised to me since."
He takes most satisfaction from the fact that his message is getting home on the pitch. "We have slowly improved since mid-January. There was a big changeover in staff so it took time for them to gel. Retention of the ball is much better, as is the shape of the team, and they are working for each other as a unit. I know that our work on the training ground and talking to the players individually is working out and the players are buying into my way of doing things."
Avoiding relegation was the principal objective this season, and Hibs managed it in some style last Monday when they blitzed Dunfermline with three goals in the opening 15 minutes. It was a performance that didn't surprise Fenlon.
"The last three to four games we have played are the best we have played all season. The cup final wasn't a distraction. In fact, it may have helped as they are all playing for their place. I have a squad of 23 and I can only pick 16 on the day."
When it comes to the cup, Fenlon knows all the history, even to the foundation of the club. "It's a similar scenario to Celtic. Irish priests formed the club to help the emigrants. We still have the harp on the green jersey. There's a big affinity with their roots, but they don't ram it down your throat. Edinburgh is divided, but only on the day. There is none of the bigotry that you get in Glasgow.
"It's 110 years since Hibs won the cup. It's incredible to think that such a big club hasn't won it in all that time while other lesser clubs have, and then throw in meeting Hearts in the final and it's madness here. It's crazy, the last time they won it they had an Irish manager, so the hype has been manic.
"I'm bringing the lads to Dublin on Sunday for three days to get away from it so that we can focus on preparing the team. Such has been the interest, they could have sold 90,000 tickets, instead of the 52,000 capacity. If we could win and get to Europe that would help the finances and also help to attract players. The fact that I'm used to Europe, it would be great to get back, even if we finished second last in the league."
Of rivals Hearts, he said: "We haven't beaten Hearts in three years and that needs to change. The cup final would be a great place to start."
"Twice since I came here we played them, and we lost each time. They have more experienced and better players, because they have a bigger budget, but we have improved and found a bit of form. To win, we're going to have to play really well. We're underdogs, but that can play on people's minds when they are expected to win."
Having played and managed in so many FAI Cup finals, Fenlon brings that knowledge to his squad. "I'll try to help the players keep focused on the job, but not get too tense about it," he explained. "You don't want them playing the occasion before they get to the park."
It's been a rollercoaster, nail-biting season for Fenlon, but he wouldn't have it any other way. "It's been a brilliant experience and it's why I got involved in the game in the first place. The goal of rebuilding the team and the club is something we can do. I have nine players on loan and six or seven out of contract, and there are players we want to bring in, so it's going to be a very busy summer."
First, though, there's the small matter of outwitting Hearts in Saturday's Scottish Cup final, and bridging that 110-year gap. History beckons the man from Finglas.
Sunday Indo Sport