In these parts, Pat Fenlon is the trigger in a name-association game brought to you by the digits “five” and “one”. Hearts fans’ beloved pastime of producing teasing reminders of their 2012 Scottish Cup final battering of bitterest rivals Hibernian made it tempting to believe that everywhere the Irishman goes there are tormentors recreating the scoreline with thrusting fingers. Fenlon may have been the Easter Road manager on that pitch-black day for the club, but now, at the helm of Shamrock Rovers in his native Dublin, he hardly has to dread popping out for a pint of milk.
“There aren’t many Hearts fans in Ireland… thanks be to God. And if there are I’ll find out where they are!” he said with a smile. “It’s not something I dwell on, to be honest. It wasn’t nice for the Hibs supporters but I don’t think about it a lot. It’s a part of football and you just have to take the bad times with the good.”
It might be easy from afar for the 47-year-old to be philosophical about the slings and arrows that need to be faced down in an unforgiving trade. It wasn’t so easy during that May day at Hampden four years ago. One of the enduring images from the afternoon is Fenlon reacting to being flailed in song by the Hearts fans by aiming in their direction what is euphemistically called a “get-it-right-roon-ye” gesture. It was an action for which he was later sanctioned by SFA, having initially denied allowing his frustrations to boil over in such fashion. “It was the only part of the day I enjoyed,” he can joke now.
It didn’t seem at the time there was very much to enjoy about Fenlon’s two years in charge at Easter Road, which ran from November 2011. The vernacular attached to the Leith club these days is “Hibsing it”, a phrase that relates to the team’s supposedly brittle temperament. What might be said of Fenlon at the club, as he became increasingly agitated when the air became acrid amid disfiguring results, was that he seemed to be Petrified – adopting a surliness not out of keeping with the sneering tone that chairman Rod Petrie could not help adopting on any rare occasion he deigned to speak to the press.
The man sitting in front of us at the bidding of William Hill to promote Hibernian’s Scottish Cup final date with Rangers on 21 May the other day at Hampden – his first visit to the national stadium since Hibs’ 3-0 final loss to Celtic in May 2013 – was the affable, engaging Pat that people who knew him in Scotland spoke of away from the dictaphones and mikes.
It is difficult to know how history will judge Fenlon as Hibs manager. He presided over what a Google search will inform you were “arguably the two worst results” in the annals of the club in the Hearts cup final drubbing and the 7-0 Europa League qualifier defeat at home to Malmo three months before he called it quits in November 2013. Yet he left Hibs as the fifth-placed team in the Scottish top flight with only two league defeats in his last nine matches, the end following a League Cup loss at home to Hearts. The team he inherited from Colin Calderwood two years earlier was one point from the bottom of the set-up. Six months after he departed, Fenlon famously phoned a journalist to complain about a match report that laid the blame on the Irishman for Hibs spectacular demise under his successor Terry Butcher.
There is a certainly an element of regret over the fact that the lead-balloon like trajectory towards the second tier in which the club have resided these past two seasons kicked in when Fenlon cut his ties with the club. Just perhaps not in the fashion the fan constituency that then wanted rid of him and said so vocally might expect. A group that ought to have ruminated on the “be careful what you wish for” adage in more recent times.
“Surprised and disappointed because it’s a fabulous football club” is how Fenlon looks upon what befell the club the season he left. “I just thought it was the right time. I think we were sixth and five points behind second and I thought it was good time for someone to come in and have a crack at it and try and take it on. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it worked out and it became a bit of a disaster the rest of the season for them to get relegated in a play-off.
“When I left the club, I had great times there. It was a great job but a difficult club to manage because of the expectation but I was really fond of the club when I left. There’s a lot of people there, players included and staff as well, that you knew it was going to cost people jobs going out of the Premier. The play-off defeat wasn’t good to watch, to be honest.
“I felt if they had maybe played both games away they might have went through because that pressure of going to Easter Road to finish off the job [after winning 2-0 in Hamilton] got to them in the end and it was a disaster. There’s no other word I suppose. It was a disaster. You feel a little bit guilty as well because maybe it might not have happened and it might have been the best time to step down at the end of the season and let somebody have a crack at it but I just felt at that time it was the right time because we weren’t in that predicament.
“When I came into the club we were 11th or something and the job was to make sure we stayed in it. I think it was ourselves and Dunfermline that were sort of around it and we were able to beat Dunfermline twice, which probably gave us that little bit of a gap to stay up. I didn’t know it was going that way, that’s only in hindsight, but I didn’t want somebody to go in there and have the job I had. I thought, ‘I’ve had a good time here, the club have been good to me, the supporters have been good to me, let someone else have a crack at it’.”
Of course, after his two grim cup final experiences – “we had good days at Hampden in the semis” – Alan Stubbs now has a crack at ending the Hibs curse in the competition that stretches back to the last win in 1902. Fenlon was supposed to be the man to do that because of his nationality, one of the explanations for the supposed “gypsy curse” put on the club tied up with the removal of the harp emblem that was above the club’s name in the stand during a redevelopment. There is also some chat about nuns who washed the strips being relieved of their duties in the wake of the 1902 success achieved under the club’s only other Irish manager, Dan McMichael. Aside from being Catholic, how Fenlon was the man to put right nuns being wronged is anyone’s guess.
“I heard all about the curse, particularly leading into the first final,” he said. “I think everybody bought into that, an Irish manager having won it the last time. Obviously that wasn’t true. It was good story for everyone, that one, but unfortunately it didn’t ring true. It’s not something I dwelt on and thought, ‘you have to do this’ because of that. I would have loved to do it but the curse didn’t bother me to be honest.
“You got reminded enough about the cup history at the time, but I never took it as a pressure. I always took it as something that would be brilliant to do, would be great to do for the club. It wasn’t something that made you nervous about the game. It was probably more a desire to win it because of that. There was nothing I could do about 100 years and it’s the same for Alan Stubbs this time. It provided a determination and desire rather than a fear that made you want to be the manager to win the cup for Hibs, to put that to bed for the supporters as well.”
With Rangers “a good opponent” for Hibs because at times this season they have had the measure of an Ibrox side who will shoulder all the expectancy at Hampden, Fenlon believes Stubbs can be the man to deliver on a dream. Even if he’s from Kirkby.
Pat Fenlon was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.