WHILE its timing in the same week as the launch of the Scottish Professional Football League meant there was an urge to place the multi-goal defeat in a wider context, presenting Hibs’ shameful display against Malmo as being symptomatic of Scottish football’s deep-rooted ills is an unhelpful exercise in deflection.
It should be avoided because it would provide a convenient excuse for Hibs. To his credit, Pat Fenlon was not in the business of looking for any in the aftermath of the 7-0 defeat, as he made rather halting progress through a press conference that was pregnant with one over-riding question: can he survive this fresh and perhaps greatest humiliation? No one wants to re-write the record books in such inglorious fashion.
Losing seven goals at Easter Road for the first time in the club’s history is a problem that Hibs have to accept is of their own making. It is something that they will not only have to deal with, but also somehow find a way to bounce back from, given that their league season begins a week tomorrow.
It isn’t normal for teams to have to greet a new campaign operating under the pressure that a young Hibs side must cope with now. Fenlon has already been installed as the bookmakers’ favourite to be the first Scottish Premiership managerial casualty.
It is remarkable that on the penultimate weekend before the domestic campaign begins, words such as “embattled and “beleaguered” are being used to describe the Easter Road manager. The players certainly don’t make it easy for him, though Fenlon picks and then prepares them. The responsibility also falls on him alone to make effective running repairs during a match and seek to prevent the kind of heavy defeat that now threatens to prove so damaging to morale at Easter Road.
Fenlon and the players don’t make it easy for the fans either. Rod Petrie, the chief executive, has often spoken of wishing to attract more of the club’s ‘cup final’ crowd back to Easter Road on a regular basis. In front of a large captive audience of 16,000 home supporters, the majority of whom were open to the idea of coming back on a regular basis providing they were given enough encouragement to do so, Hibs let themselves down again.
While Fenlon is right not to look for excuses, he should be looking for reasons. Worryingly for Hibs supporters, he looked as baffled as anyone by the extraordinary collapse.
On the same night, St Johnstone struck a blow for Scottish football with an excellent aggregate victory over Rosenborg. Even if we accept that the Norwegian club are not the perennial Champions League participants of old, it was still a result to be celebrated. It placed Hibs’ struggles in more stark light, and left them a yet more isolated case. St Johnstone proved that Scottish football can win out against the odds, although were the odds really so firmly stacked against Hibs? They can point to Malmo’s superior match fitness as being a mitigating factor, but Hibs were expected to at least be competitive.
Fenlon looked genuinely shaken when he emerged to meet with reporters afterwards. Some might have expected him to come in and announce his resignation there and then. Is losing seven goals at home a resigning issue? Possibly. When included on a managerial CV that also contains blotches such as a 5-1 defeat to Hearts in a national cup final, it turns a lot more toxic.
Unhelpfully, as far as Fenlon is concerned, the humiliation also re-opens an investigation into how it was possible to concede three goals against a First Division side in the first half of a national cup semi-final. Although Hibs recovered against Falkirk, the first-half cannot simply be erased from the charge sheet. Many of their long-suffering fans were already on their way home by then.
The Scottish Cup final defeat to Hearts has been picked over enough, but this Malmo reversal leaves Fenlon open to further scrutiny. He later described it as “a challenge” to pick the players up before the season begins in earnest. And what about the supporters? Who picks them up?
Pat Stanton counts himself as a fan and he looked on with something approaching disbelief. After all, he was a member of the Hibs side who defeated Malmo 6-0 in a Fairs Cup clash at Easter Road in 1970. “Aye, that was a wee while ago,” Stanton said yesterday.
On an emotional night, he was spotted clapping heartily during the minute’s applause in memory of Lawrie Reilly and he felt the absence of his friend perhaps more deeply than many – next to him was an empty seat, where Reilly had often sat. Fenlon has Stanton’s support for now, but the former skipper wants to see more responsibility being shown by the players.
“There are wee things that you see,” he said. “Hibs got some corner kicks, and they took a wee while to take them. I am saying to myself: ‘is anyone going to take this corner kick?’
“It is small things like that. ‘C’mon, show a bit of urgency here’. Even if you are not the guy who takes the corner kicks, go and get the ball and show some enthusiasm, and maintain the tempo. There were one or two occasions last night when that was not the case – and that is a wee bit worrying, because the opposition see that as well.”
According to Stanton, Fenlon will now have to show his worth – as will the players. “He has to start picking up the pieces and start all over again,” he said. “It will be difficult. But in a situation like this the players have to respond. You talk until you are blue in the face about tactics. It’s like the fellow we have just been talking about – Lawrie Reilly.
“Lawrie and those he played with, they brought something with them,” he added. “You don’t put everything in a player. They have to have the will to survive and to win.”
For the time being, Stanton trusts Fenlon to turn it around. “But the players have to respond to him,” he warned. “It has happened, you can’t change it now. But you can do your damnedest to improve.
“That thing that took place last night, it will be there for a while. And we had a disappointment in the cup final, and the cup final previous to that one. Rally around the manager and give your best. The players really have to do that.”
Fenlon has now overseen two defeats that rate among the worst results in the club’s history – and perhaps are the two worst. Although the cup final loss to their rivals might have carried a greater sting, any neutral observer present for both games would likely choose Thursday’s night defeat as being the far more hapless of the two. “It was very, very disappointing,” conceded Stanton. “You can’t drag everyone [in Scottish football] into it. St Johnstone had a good result, although our game has slipped back a bit. I am not saying anything new here. You can only go with what you see. There has been a slipping back in the level of player.”
However, Stanton acknowledged that it is up to Hibs to put their own house in order. Malmo were fitter and better organised. There is nothing there that Hibs cannot aspire to. Whether Fenlon is up to the task is by no means certain. He certainly hasn’t proved it yet.