ANY argument about who is the best or worst manager in Hibernian’s history might go on for some time without resolution. But right now one thing is clear: the luckiest, without a shadow of a doubt, is the incumbent, Pat Fenlon.
Since taking over in November 2011, the Irishman has presided over three events, any one of which could easily, in other circumstances, have spelled the end of his reign.
The 2012 Scottish Cup final humiliation by Hearts, the calamitous first half in this year’s semi-final against Falkirk, and last week’s 7-0 home defeat by Malmo: each must have had alarm bells ringing within Easter Road, and had Fenlon’s employers at least asking themselves about the manager’s future.
Yet here we are, on the verge of a new domestic season, and Fenlon is still in his post. Indeed, not only is he still in his post, his job does not even seem to be under serious threat at present.
To those Hibs fans longing for a sustained recovery rather than the false dawn of last season’s brief ascent to the top of the table, such security of tenure may well appear unjustifiable. To recent managers such as John Hughes, with whom the club parted company in altogether less embarrassing circumstances, it might simply seem unjust.
But it is precisely because of recent history that the powers that be at Hibs, which above all means chairman Rod Petrie, are in no rush to get rid of Fenlon. In fact, far from itching to replace the manager, it is more likely that the Hibs board are desperate for him to turn things round.
Since the turn of the century, Hibs have had nine managers. The past four before Fenlon have lasted, on average, 15 months. Stability has been in short supply, and Hibs are therefore keen to have a manager who can stay in his post longer, and provide evidence of some improvement.
So stability is one factor in the desire to give Fenlon more time. Credibility is another: specifically, Petrie’s credibility.
The last time Hibs got rid of a manager – Colin Calderwood – a significant percentage of the club’s support decided that the malaise ran deeper than a few bad bosses. They identified Petrie, the man who had appointed Calderwood, Hughes, Mixu Paatelainen and others, as the root of the problem.
If Fenlon were to go now, far more people would identify Petrie as the common factor in the lengthening list of managerial failures. That in itself would be of little concern to the chairman, who has never gone out of his way to court popularity. But its potential economic consequences would.
Only a dozen or so felt motivated enough to turn up and chant “Sack the board” outside the annual general meeting shortly after Calderwood went, yet a far greater number are passively disenchanted. Another managerial departure would surely deepen that disenchantment, leading to a drop in attendances and income.
Of course, the risk in keeping Fenlon is that poor results will likewise lead to falling crowds. But for the time being, it looks like Petrie’s reading of the balance sheet means that Fenlon stays.
Here’s the way it probably looks inside Easter Road just now. On the football side, if you get rid of Fenlon it’s back to square one: more grief from the fans, and no guarantee that the next man will do a better job.
On the business side, termination of a contract which has almost a year to run could prove costly. Plus of course the cost of hiring replacements, who could themselves be under contract at present.
This may be a cold, utilitarian way of looking at things to those of us for whom football is all about passion. But that’s Petrie’s job: to maintain Hibs on as even a keel as possible by making a continual, dispassionate assessment of the state of the club.
And that is why, despite the periodic humiliations under Fenlon, there is concern but no panic within Easter Road at the moment. A considerable sum has been spent over the summer in recruiting extra staff, and that investment would be jeopardised were the manager to go.
Liam Craig was regarded as a good signing because of his form with St Johnstone last season. Owain Tudur Jones had some outstanding performances for Caley Thistle. New strikers Rowan Vine and James Collins will have a tough task to come close to matching Leigh Griffiths’ contribution last season, but, having been signed, they will be given a chance to prove their worth.
Perhaps more significantly than any of those new arrivals, Jimmy Nicholl has also joined, as assistant manager. With greater experience at a higher level than Fenlon, Nicholl could play a crucial role in making Hibs tougher and more competitive – and should certainly eradicate any lingering complacency within the playing squad. Like the new players, Nicholl has not yet had a chance to show what he can do.
Fenlon has identified Nicholl and those players as being part of the solution. A new manager might have different ideas, leading to more upheaval.
For all those reasons, then – and despite the fact that a poll on a fans’ chat room is still running at a 70 per cent for the manager to be sacked – Fenlon is expected to stay for now.
Another reason is the strength of the opposition within the top flight. Against clubs who are strapped for cash – including city rivals Hearts, whose squad for this season is their least experienced in some 30 years – it will not take much of an improvement in playing standards for Hibs to get into the top six.
Whether Fenlon is capable of that is another matter, but you can see why the cautious Petrie may think it is worth a punt. The real issue, surely, was whether Fenlon should have kept his job after the summer.
He deserved another chance after the 2012 defeat by Hearts on the grounds that he had succeeded in his primary task of avoiding relegation, and because some of the loan players who let Hibs down that day at Hampden had only ever been brought in as stop-gaps. But then last season his rebuilt squad showed many of the same failings as their predecessors.
True, they overhauled their 2012-13 points total with months to spare. But their collapse in the latter half of last season was so bad that it was only with a couple of weeks to go that they finally ensured they would end up better than the 11th place they managed in their previous campaign.
True again, they overcame the 3-0 half-time deficit in the semi-final to beat Falkirk 4-3.
But then in the 3-0 final loss to Celtic – for all that it was spun as some sort of triumph compared to the previous year – they were never in contention once Gary Hooper opened the scoring after eight minutes.
In other words, yes, there was an improvement in both cup and league from the previous year. But it was a very modest one, it came from a very low starting point, and the potential for embarrassment – as shown in the Malmo match – has not gone away.
One more result like that 0-7 loss, and even Petrie’s patience will surely stretch to breaking point.