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'I felt like leaving at half-time with fans'

IT was looking grim for Pat Fenlon at half-time in Saturday's Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden park. He was aware that Hibernian fans were streaming for the exits with their side 3-0 down to Falkirk, and he was in the mood to follow them.

Defeat to the First Division side coming on the back of missing out on a top-six finish would have placed serious pressure on the Dubliner.

Now, he's gearing up for a second cup final in succession, an achievement that brings its own sense of trepidation given his employers' chequered history in the competition. They have failed to lift the trophy since 1902, a stat that lingers over every Hibs manager.

Humiliation at the hands of Hearts in last season's showpiece was a devastating blow, and Fenlon's men will gear up for the big day next month as serious underdogs against Celtic.

But it's better than the alternative that was staring them in the face as a young Falkirk side raced into a three-goal lead.

"I felt like leaving myself at half-time," said Fenlon. "It was difficult to watch and difficult to take, and I apologise to the supporters for that first half – that's down to me."

He had strong words to say at the interval, with the eventual hero Leigh Griffiths, who scored once in normal time and again in extra-time to give the favourites a 4-3 success, saying that a "rollicking" hit home.

"It wasn't much of a team talk and more of a rant, but it worked," said Fenlon, who rang the changes and relied on youth, with teenager Alex Harris instigating the comeback.

"It was a horrendous first half but we showed tremendous character and played really well after that. It was an unbelievable game. I've never been through anything like that before and I never want to again. It was incredible," added the ex-Bohs and Shels boss, who joked after the game that he would sleep until Monday to recover.

His tactics from the outset came under scrutiny with celebrity fan Irvine Welsh – the Scottish novelist of 'Trainspotting' fame – summing up a popular point of view by arguing that Fenlon should have opted for a 4-4-2 from the outset as opposed to kicking off with one up front. The half-time introduction of former Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers striker Eoin Doyle enhanced their options in that department and he did pop up with the equaliser.

Still, the bigger picture at Easter Road is emphasised by the fact that Doyle is off to England this summer to be reunited with ex-Sligo supremo Paul Cook at Chesterfield after rejecting a new contract offer from Hibs. Chesterfield play in League Two, an indication of the playing budget that is available to Fenlon.

The Dubliner is aware that he inherited a serious rebuilding project in Edinburgh and is putting long-term plans in place with a view to realising that ambition, with the support of a board that has a reputation for being trigger happy.

Their loyalty to Fenlon might have been tested if there had been no second-half improvement on Saturday, but the former Parkhead season-ticket holder can now prepare for a showdown with Neil Lennon's charges on Sunday, May 26.

Doyle, Meath man Tim Clancy and Dubliners Alan Maybury and Gary Deegan also have a prospect of being involved in the fixture, although the latter pair did not figure on Saturday.

In the meantime, Hibs will play out the remainder of the league campaign in the bottom half of the Scottish Premier League, with the club in free fall having picked up just one league win in 2013.

Irish Independent