IT WAS the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” break-up, with Pat Fenlon insisting that Hibs are in great shape to push forward, that the staff and players he has assembled are capable of bringing success and that he could not have asked for more support than he received from the board.
Even the fans, some of whom protested outside Easter Road following the League Cup defeat by Hearts on Wednesday, were spared any kind of criticism. It was just time, he said.
Sitting at his farewell press conference still decked out in his club tracksuit, having come straight from taking his final training session, Fenlon looked neither weary nor relieved, not angry or tortured by regrets. He looked sad but resolute and he looked more at ease in that environment than he has for a while.
Only a couple of nights earlier he had looked antsy, awkward and more than a little irritated as he sat in the same chair being quizzed about his future as the sound of the supporters’ angry shouting and chanting forced its way into the room. He says his decision had already been made by that stage and that his only regret was that he couldn’t have gone out with a derby win on record as his last result.
But it is the derbies which have undoubtedly proved the catalyst for his departure. Yes, he was the first manager in more than a decade to guide Hibs through an entire season unbeaten in the capital head-to-heads but even that couldn’t cancel out the ignominy of that 5-1 defeat to Hearts in the 2012 Scottish Cup final. The fact he guided Hibs to back-to-back cup finals was measured as worse than worthless by many fans who could not separate that statistic from the fact that one of them resulted in the most painful defeat in the club’s history.
It was not one their rivals would allow them to forget, which meant it was not one the Hibs fans could ever forgive.
In that sense his final statements showed a real awareness of his situation.
The trust had gone, eroded further by the humiliation of losing 7-0 to Malmo in the Europa League and then two defeats out of two this season to a young Hearts side hamstrung by administration.
“A lot of the negativity is towards me at the moment and I think if I take myself out of the firing line it will help everyone,” he explained. “There have been highlights,” he insisted, “but it’s come to a point when I feel it’s right for someone else to come in.” The inference was clear. He was taking one for the team, his pride allowing him to walk in the belief that he was leaving the club in pretty decent shape for his successor, a manager who would not have the 5-1 demon constantly over their shoulder.
“There are still a lot of raw feelings from that cup final,” admitted goalkeeper Ben Williams, acknowledging the residual difficulties it caused the manager and even players who weren’t even involved that day. “A lot of people still haven’t got over that and probably never will but football has got to move on. In the time that he has been here he has taken Hibs from being a close-to-relegation side to two cup finals, and we are an improving side. We finished seventh last year but we finished on more points than Dundee United and we go into this weekend only five points off second place. But football is a results business and if you don’t match the expectations of fans then you are destined to fail because, ultimately, it’s the fans who have the loudest voice.”
Fenlon said that the protests on Wednesday played no part in his decision and while Williams says he had been told nothing to the contrary by the outgoing gaffer when he visited the training ground yesterday morning to say his goodbyes, he believes the unsavoury exchanges will not have helped.
“What I can say is that something like that can’t have been easy for him because he is very passionate and very protective of us and he fights our corner so to see his players going through that was probably tough for him,” Williams said. “It may or not have played a part in his decision but it could have been the final straw.”
Having traded so many players, building an entirely different team from the one which lost to Hearts at Hampden, and even tweaked the squad further in the summer, the signs are positive for anyone coming in, according to Williams.
A number of names have already been mentioned in connection with the vacancy, with Terry Butcher, Peter Grant and Kenny Shiels among the front runners. But there are less experienced managers also being touted. Ian Murray and Paul Hartley are in the frame but have yet to manage at the top level but the likes of Hartley and even Craig Levein, who has also been linked with job, could find themselves facing the same problem faced by Fenlon, with fans unwilling to forgive the part they played in past derbies. The likes of Michael O’Neill and Jimmy Calderwood are also contenders. But Williams says the club could do worse than promote current assistant Jimmy Nicholl.
“Obviously, the players have responded very well since Jimmy [Nicholl] has come in as a coach and he has had a very positive impact around the club. In the coming days and weeks the chairman and directors will address everything and I’m sure Jimmy will be one of the first to put his name in the hat so we will just have to wait and see what comes of it. The important things is that on the football side of things, while everything else is going on in the back ground, we as players take care of what we need to on the pitch. But Jimmy has managed before and he is a great coach and he would give us continuity. I just think it’s important that the chairman and directors bring in someone who recognises what the manager has said about there being a good enough squad to take the club on, a manager who will really push us on and take us to that next level.”