It WAS possible to sense the strength of feeling from a couple of flights up in the main stand and through the windows of the press room. For Pat Fenlon, there could be no escape from what the chanting outside signified. Anger had replaced apathy. The tide had turned.
No one could wish this on anyone. Similarly, no one could claim that the abuse of footballers leaving their place of work is justified, as happened following Hibs’ defeat to Hearts in the League Cup quarter-final on Wednesday. But what can surely be understood is the depth of dismay felt by the Hibs supporters.
Despite being in administration, despite being rooted to the bottom of the league, despite operating under a transfer embargo, Hearts are still managing to have sport at their rivals’ expense. It has become too much to bear for Hibs supporters, who have turned on the manager with a force that has not been seen at Easter Road for years.
Mike Riley cannot recall when he last sensed such a mood of revolt among the fans. “It got quite bad under Bobby Williamson, but I don’t remember it being like this,” said the chairman of the Hibs supporters’ club yesterday. He also noted that he has held this position for six years “and not once has a reporter phoned me up to ask about something joyful”. This perhaps gets to the nub of the problem as far as Hibs supporters are concerned. The football has become a chore and the enjoyment has ebbed away. Hibs kids’ promotions are well and good but not if the product on the pitch is so poor and unlikely to keep potential new fans interested. “The football is just so negative under Fenlon,” added Riley.
The manager can’t be blamed for the perceived faults of other reigns during six joyless years but, by the end of this month, he will have been in charge for two years. Hibs supporters have been admirably prepared to try to forgive – if not forget – the Scottish Cup final hammering from Hearts. If you looked hard enough there were even mitigating factors surrounding the 7-0 reversal against Malmo, given that it was just two games into the season. But Wednesday night was a torment too far against a team described by one dejected Hibs fan yesterday as “an under-20 team with three over age players”. For Riley, the gathering of 200 or so fans outside the main stand was hugely significant. “Hibs fans don’t normally do that, they just say we are not going back,” he said. “But apathy isn’t an option now.”
Helping explain chairman Rod Petrie’s determination to retain faith with the current incumbent is the fact that Hibs have employed four managers since 2008. He doesn’t want to open himself up to criticism by dispensing with the services of another manager but then retaining Fenlon is looking like an even greater mistake. “Rod Petrie had done tremendously financially,” said Riley. “But, at the same time, he has lost direction of the football side of things. What I would suggest is a director of football-type figure.”
Whether such an appointment, working in tandem with Fenlon would appease the supporters is highly debatable. Their faith seems to have eroded completely, along with their patience. Fenlon has been presented with both time and considerable investment in comparison to others and yet Hibs are still currently in the bottom six.
A new striker has been purchased for a reported £200,000 and still Hibs are the second lowest goalscorers in the league. Comments about progress from Fenlon are now serving only to antagonise the fans further.
“The supporters have been great and turned out in numbers,” said Paul Hanlon, who saw a header hit a post in the opening period when Hibs looked set to sweep Hearts aside. But belief visibly drained from the team after Ryan Stevenson’s fine goal after 33 minutes. The manager’s struggle to inspire the team was summed up by their failure to make any kind of headway in the second half on Wednesday.
So much seemed to hinge on them making a recovery, including the manager’s own future, and yet the players seemed unable to raise themselves.
“I don’t think we felt the pressure,” continued Hanlon, as he continued to search for reasons for the failure to react to the loss of an opening goal. “The way we started the game showed that we were not playing under any pressure. We were camped in their box – we showed we were not feeling any pressure.
“But, when a goal like that goes in, it changes everything. They have something to hang on to. They defended well and their keeper has had a great game. On another night we could have scored three or four. Obviously, that has not happened. But, in terms of the performance, I don’t think we could have given more.”
Hanlon stressed that the players remained supportive of Fenlon, as of course they must. “Go back two or three games and we were on a decent run,” he argued. “It does not change overnight. It has not been a bad performance that has put us out of the cup. Take the Malmo game out of the equation and, in the first two league games, we did not deserve to get beaten, and he [Fenlon] was under pressure then. But we always believed it would come good. We got beaten at the weekend against Aberdeen and performed badly. I don’t think we performed badly tonight but it is about bouncing back at the weekend [against Motherwell].
Hanlon conceded that the defeats to Hearts in the Scottish Cup final and against Malmo in the Europa League qualifying round were “terrible performances”. However, he felt that Wednesday night’s result did not deserve to be included in the same bracket.
“It has just been about not putting the ball in the net,” he said. But that won’t appease supporters who have now placed the pressure on Petrie like never before.