Aidan Smith: Pat Fenlon can feel smug

Sam Stanton shows his frustration during Hibs' 2-0 home defeat by Aberdeen last Monday. Picture: SNS
Sam Stanton shows his frustration during Hibs' 2-0 home defeat by Aberdeen last Monday. Picture: SNS
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IN THE bars around Easter Road, as they wait for the moment when they can properly judge Terry Butcher, the fans have been killing time by assessing and re-assessing the work of his predecessors, with some surprising outcomes.

I have heard John Collins – the last Hibernian manager to win a trophy – dismissed as lucky for merely being required to get what was essentially Tony Mowbray’s fine young team past St Mirren and Kilmarnock. Moreover, when he had to recruit later he revealed he had a glass eye for a player with the signings of Brian Kerr and Alan O’Brien. And I have heard some pretty interesting revisionism about Mowbray too.

Yes, yes, he produced the second-most thrilling Hibs side of the post-Famous Five era (after Eddie Turnbull’s), but didn’t they regularly concede four to Hearts including a Scottish Cup semi-final? Didn’t they also lose heavily in Europe? So how come these things are forgotten during the frequent sentimental eulogising of Mowbray’s Munchkins when Pat Fenlon, who got Hibs to successive Scottish Cup finals, is destined to be forever cast as the manager who delivered the two worst results in the club’s history?

In this debate, Mixu Paatelainen and John Hughes attract sympathy for the abruptness with which they were forced to depart. Alex McLeish, for departing to Rangers, is forgiven because in the final reckoning he persuaded Russell Latapy to run out at Somerset Park in the green and white and Franck Sauzee, European Cup-winner, to make his debut at old Brockville. And now that the Fenlon apologists have emerged from the woodwork – from the wooden floor of Robbie’s Bar in Leith Walk, no less – I’ve been on alert for a rare sighting of the lesser-spotted appreciator of Colin Calderwood. No sign of him yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

What does all of this mean? That fans and club are well-matched, I’d say. As the team bump around near the bottom of the league and in their stupefied state are wondering what happened to a season which on Butcher’s arrival prompted unanimous predictions of “Top six, definitely” – so the faithful are turning in nervy performances over the post-match pints where they snatch at things and make poor judgments. But there’s a point to looking again at the different managerial reigns (different apart from all having more or less the same outcome). The fans are trying to detect a pattern. They want to know if it’s true what some people are saying: that the Hibs malaise is an identifiable condition.

This argument has it that there’s a fundamental flaw in the psyche, that the club are serial failures. Serial dreamers, perhaps, and serial idealists and serial flair-football purists. But ultimately: serial big jessies, serial cock-up merchants, serial Leith’s Got Talent heat-winners who blow it when the competition gets serious and they’re pitted against, say, a bingo-wing shadow-art troupe.

Now, all of this is very Hibernian: to wallow and obsess in a manner most fatalistic. But can it actually be true that no matter who Rod Petrie hires as a manager, and no matter the XI picked by that manager from loan signings, too-skinny kids and guys who just lurve Edinburgh, the stadium and the training complex, they will invariably fail? The fans can believe there are stats to show that James Collins, the non-scoring striker, runs around a fair bit before taking up the wrong positions or displaying his usual lack of composure when presented with a clear shooting chance. But they should treat any “scientific evidence” that underachievement is in the club DNA with the utmost scepticism.

They are entitled to say to the chairman: “Rod, you’re a whizz with the balance-sheet. You got a good price for Kenny Miller and that helped redevelop the stadium. An even better price for Garry O’Connor finished off the ground and started the training centre. The sales of Scott Brown and Steven Fletcher kept the finances perky. As other clubs suffered the consequences of over-reaching, you showed us the wisdom of, er, under-reaching.

But not every other club are enduring Hearts’ plight. Aberdeen are winning cups. St Johnstone are able to outbid us for players. And we’re currently mired with Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle, Ross County and St Mirren whose usual home crowds would all fit comfortably into Easter Road, which right now is echoing to groans. Surely this wasn’t in the grand plan.”

Petrie has been unlucky with some of his managers, who left halfway through the project, but hasn’t always picked them well. He has given some managers too little time and some too much (turning down compensation to retain Calderwood then a few months later paying compensation to get rid of him – that must have stung). Some managers got too little to spend; some, comparatively, too much. Fine players, future title-winning captains elsewhere, were under-rewarded, only for the purse-strings to be reluctantly loosened for replacements who flopped. Then the chairman put all what he’d learned about football into the appointment of Fenlon, saying: “I looked in Pat’s eyes and saw a winner.”

Fenlon was irked by match reports from early in the Butcher era for disparaging him, even phoning up the papers concerned to complain. He did good work with Leigh Griffiths but – and he probably won’t like this either – those goals kept him in a job. Now Fenlon can look at his successor’s one win in 14 and feel quite smug.

To replace Griffiths, the chairman who is reputedly the most careful with the pennies was persuaded to stump up the biggest fee paid by a Scottish club outwith the Old Firm for many a year. Butcher has had no more joy with Collins than Fenlon. The new man has also, unsurprisingly, seen his youngest players start to wilt under the growing threat of the play-offs. More surprisingly, his battle-hardened senior pros are not as prominent as they should be, among them the captain, Liam Craig.

This may seem a trivial point but Craig likes to wear his socks over his knees. I’ve watched him re-adjust his hosiery after another dramatic lunge in front of one of the stands (it’s engrossing stuff down Leith way at the moment, let me tell you). But I only noticed this after Butcher remarked how one of his January window loanees was blissfully free of the modern footballer gubbins: fancy boots, fancy hair, tattoos, the socks thing. The fans will be hoping Craig rolls up his sleeves for the five games that are left because right now he’s as – euphemism alert – enigmatic in green and white as John Rankin was, before the latter moved on and miraculously rediscovered form.

There’s an argument that Butcher should have been able to effect the kind of running repairs to have Hibs in a better position. There’s another that by being so big and forthright and honest about the lousiest performances he must have some hacked-off players of whom a salvage job is now required. I still reckon it’s too soon to say what kind of manager he will be. The big man certainly talks a good game, even when the subject isn’t football. Back in February we chatted long into the North Berwick afternoon about Deep Purple power-chords and Turner landscapes. “If you could be an artist,” he challenged me, “which one?”

He should be given time, and money. My fear is that the chairman, having waved the chequebook around for a bit, will misplace it again, hoping that Butcher might be able to follow McLeish in picking up a couple of discarded gems like Latapy or Sauzee. But the Scottish football landscape has changed and the big TV money of that era which paid the stellar twosome’s wages has gone. Petrie must be worried about season-ticket fall-off with no cup final carrot this time. Hampden trips kept Hibs artificially buoyant, just like Griffiths’ goals. Now he must back the new man because I’m not sure the fans will let him make another appointment. Already regarding Butcher’s question about painters some must be thinking: “Edvard ‘The Scream’ Munch.”