PAT Fenlon managed to take his leave of Hibernian yesterday afternoon in a manner which was at once both dignified and bizarre.
As the media gathered at Easter Road for the club’s scheduled 3pm pre-match media conference ahead of tomorrow’s league game at Motherwell, there was little hint that it was about to be transformed into a valedictory address by the embattled Hibs manager.
Chairman Rod Petrie had been spotted entering the stadium a little earlier but it appeared to be business as usual when, in the normal manner, the club’s PR man brought Owain Tudur Jones into the press lounge to speak to reporters.
The big Welsh midfielder was never going to be the story this week, of course, with the focus of the assembled hacks firmly on Fenlon’s position at the club and how he would defend it in the aftermath of Wednesday night’s 1-0 home defeat by Hearts in the quarter-finals of the League Cup.
Without even being asked about the manager, Tudur Jones volunteered his support for Fenlon, insisting the players he had brought to the club would be “fighting hard” in the coming weeks to deliver success.
What Tudur Jones and his team-mates did not know at that stage was that the battle to save Fenlon’s job had already been lost. The Irishman was running late for his own briefing with reporters, but that is nothing out of the ordinary in Scottish football where most managers are not renowned for their punctuality.
But shortly before 4pm, Hibs’ senior public relations figure David Forsyth entered the room with copies of the statement which revealed Fenlon’s time was up and the club would be looking for their sixth manager in seven years.
To his great credit, Fenlon had decided to face the media in any case and when he appeared a few minutes later, he spoke at length and with barely disguised emotion about reaching the conclusion he had to resign. Throughout it all, still wearing his Hibernian training top with the PF initials, he regularly referred to the club as “we”.
“When I came to the club, it was a difficult place to be at, but I believe I am leaving it in a good place and that is a big part of my decision,” said Fenlon.
“Someone else is coming in to a vibrant place with players that want to do well. If that is the case, and it happens, and we end up in a great position at the end of the season, then I will be proud feeling I played a part in that.”
Fenlon insisted the protest staged by supporters outside Easter Road after the defeat by Hearts had not influenced him significantly, although he admitted it may have been having an adverse effect on the team in general. “A lot of the anger is directed at me, rightly so because I’m at the helm, and I can understand the frustration of the supporters,” he said. “It is time to change that by taking myself out of the equation.
“I don’t feel any anger about it. I feel privileged to have got the job. The emotion is disappointment. It’s sad I have to do this to bring the club on but we have taken it to a point where it needs someone else to go on. Taking myself out the equation will help.
“It’s hard to make that decision but I firmly believe it is the right decision to make in relation to the club and taking it on. It’s about the bigger picture. It’s not just solely about me…if it was I would be sitting here talking about playing Motherwell at the weekend. It’s about making the right decision for everybody.”
Fenlon is satisfied he was responsible for progress at Hibs, the fruits of which he believes will now benefit another manager. But he is aware his time at the club is destined to be forever remembered most for the 5-1 defeat by Hearts in the 2012 Scottish Cup Final and this season’s 7-0 home loss to Malmo in the Europa League.
“That’s the way it is, that’s just the way it works in football,” he shrugged. “We also went a season unbeaten against Hearts, which hadn’t happened in about eight or nine years, so that’s a positive but people don’t want to talk about those things.
“They continue to talk about the cup final and Malmo, so I can’t change that. I can’t influence what people write and talk about. I haven’t thought about how I’ll be remembered. Hopefully people will respect the job I’ve done and that I’ve worked hard enough to get the club into a decent position.
“We finished 11th the season I came in. We finished seventh last season, 18 points better off. If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is, to be honest. We reached two cup finals as well, albeit we lost them. I feel there is a really good squad here now, good staff and it’s a very good club.
“We have changed the whole staff, we have changed the structure in relation to scouting and worked hard with the academy. There are a lot of positives. If I was going away from here leaving the club in a poor position, then I would be more disappointed. I am not happy to be going, but I believe I am leaving something to be proud of for the next man.”
Fenlon says he will take some time out before deciding on the next move in his career, whether it is back home in Ireland or elsewhere. But despite the acrimonious feelings of supporters towards him latterly, he intends to return to Easter Road on a regular basis.
“It’s not the club I supported as a kid or anything like that, but I have a real affinity with Hibs now,” he said. “Anywhere I have been, I have tried to enrol myself in the club and try to enjoy what the club is about. This is a great club and I’ll have no hesitation in coming to watch games here.
“I think I leave here as a better manager. I’ve gained huge experience from working here and that will help me. You learn from both the successes and the failures. You look at the disappointments of the cup finals and the Malmo game. The one thing was we bounced back from those disappointments.
“Our start to the season was poor but we then went nine games and only lost one. That showed real character. After Malmo, that could have killed the lot of us. It didn’t. We rolled up our sleeves as we felt we had a good squad. I still believe in the players. I think they are a real good group.
“I’ve been to two Scottish Cup finals which I was very proud of – not the results and performances – but leading the club there. I’ve had some good days at Hampden – two semi-final wins – and we’ve had some good results against our big rivals. It’s a disappointing day for me today but there’s still a lot of positives to look back at. It’s a good time for someone to come in and take us forward.”