Tuesday 12 December 2017

Fenlon on brink of Hibernian immortality

Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

DID you hear the one about the Irish manager at the Scottish Cup final?

Well, the name was Dan McMichael, the occasion was the 1902 decider between Hibs and Celtic and it ended well, as the Edinburgh side defeated mighty Celtic 2-1.

Today, 110 years of yearning by generations of Hibs fans is carried on the shoulders of another Irishman -- Pat Fenlon, a proud Dubliner.

Diminutive in stature, but a born winner, Fenlon steps into the Hampden Park cauldron as manager of the 2012 Hibs team which seeks to claim only the third Scottish Cup victory in the club's 137-year history. The pragmatic, logical side of Fenlon's character knows that in the wider scheme of things, saving the club from dropping out of the Scottish Premier League was the major achievement of the season.

That's the task he was given last November when he left Bohemians for a fire-fighting job with Hibernan and all of Fenlon's waking moments and mental energies were devoted to that aim.

The cup run has been a bonus, but a relative sideshow for the manager up to the moment Hibs were safe for another year at the top level in Scotland.

Not everyone was worried about the prospect of Division 1 football.

A sizeable section of the Easter Road support would have forgiven relegation if Fenlon could only deliver the Scottish Cup. The icing on the cake would be victory over Edinburgh rivals Hearts, but really, the opposition doesn't matter. All that glitters in the eyes of Hibs followers this week is that silver trophy.

Cup fever has been so intense in the city that Fenlon took his players to the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links for a few days last week to get away from the frenzied atmosphere.

"It's something I haven't witnessed before. All that people want to talk about is the game. It's very intense at the moment. Some Hibs fans would have been happy to go down if we won the Scottish Cup, believe it or not. That's how mad it got," said Fenlon.

As a player and manager in Ireland, Fenlon, who started his career as an apprentice at Chelsea, won plenty of silverware.

He gained league honours with St Pat's 1989-90 and Shelbourne (1999-2000); FAI Cup winner's medals with Bohs in 1992 and Shels in their double year of 2000; with Linfield he took home two IFA Cup mementoes and an Irish League medal; and was PFAI Player of the Year twice.

Management brought further success. League titles with Shelbourne in 2003, '04 and '06 were followed by two with Bohs ('08, '09). The FAI Cup was claimed for Bohs in '08,as was the League Cup in '09, and the Setanta Sports Cup in '10, while he was honoured with the Soccer Writers Association of Ireland Personality of the Year award in '07.

A decade has passed since Fenlon (43) hung up his boots in '02 after a season as player-manager of Shels.

The years at Tolka Park and Dalymount Park were marked by the Celtic Tiger madness where big money was spent by Shels and Bohs in the belief that property sales of the respective stadiums would fund a golden future.

As that football fantasy shattered in the wake of the national and international economic collapse, reality crashed into the game with an icy shock.

Fenlon's final season with Shels in '06 ended in triumph on the pitch and destitution off it. A brief five months at Derry was followed by his appointment at Bohemians, but in the last couple of years, financial meltdown put the club's future in peril.

Through it all, Fenlon got stuck in at every level at Tolka Park and Dalymount, even marking the pitch and painting the stand when those jobs needed to be done. At Hibs, his only task is to look after the team and the players and it's a luxury which has required some adjustment.

"It's a different scenario. At Hibs we have people in place and the finances to do that, whereas at Shels and at Bohs we didn't have that, so you wanted to help out," he said.

Fenlon has an affinity with Scottish football going back many years, and he travelled to half-a-dozen Scottish Cup finals.

The first was 1988 when Irish internationals Mick McCarthy, Packie Bonner and Chris Morris were on the Celtic side which did the Double that year.

He has Irish players in the squad -- Matt Doherty on loan from Wolves, Roy O'Donovan on loan from Coventry, Eoin Doyle, ex-Sligo, and Richie Towell on loan from Celtic.

It hasn't been plain sailing with all the players in the squad all the time but, said Fenlon: "The Irish boys have a fabulous attitude and they've settled in well."

League form favours Hearts, but Fenlon is up for the challenge.

"For me to lead out a team at Hampden is fantastic. Nobody outside the club gives us a chance, but I intend to enjoy it, win lose or draw.

"It would be fantastic to win the final, because it would mean so much to the people who support us," he said.

Hibernian v Hearts, Scottish Cup final

Live, Sky Sports 4, 3.0

Irish Independent

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