I’ve been urging him to keep up with his reading, writing and numbers, which he has done with a lot of teenage grumping and groaning, seven years premature, but on Friday he was keen to impress. “Listen to this, Dad,” he said. “If Malmo can beat Hibs 7-0 and Swansea can beat Malmo 4-0, that means if we were to play Swansea they’d win 11-0.”
You can’t argue with that logic and Pat Fenlon is in no position to do so. Hibs fans, despite their daft boasts, have never hidden from the fact that hidings come along quite often for this maddening club. Even when they were good – Turnbull’s Tornadoes – they could generally be relied upon to lose heavily to Celtic. Even when they were very good – the Famous Five, winners of three championships – the likes of Hearts (frequently), Motherwell and Queen of the South could bang five past them and Clyde once scored six. And let’s not forget – no effort required here – Fenlon’s team are not good.
It must be frustrating for the manager. He can see how many folk are willing to turn out to watch on sunny days – the Scottish Cup final in May and the Europa League qualifier against the Swedes. Hibs weren’t expected to win at Hampden and even if they’d somehow got through against Malmo, progress in the continental competition was bound to be short-lived. And yet still the people came. They came knowing Fenlon is unlikely to ever put an Alex Edwards or a Russell Latapy, far less a Bobby Johnstone, into the midfield, even if he could find one. They came knowing he is fundamentally a cautious manager, which grates with the traditionalists, the delusionists and me. It must be frustrating for Fenlon because until that worst-ever defeat at Easter Road he probably thought he had banged on about “progress” enough times and a sufficient number were prepared to believe him.
There has been no progress, not really. The elevation from 11th place to seventh doesn’t bear rigorous scrutiny. The November flirtation with the top of the league fooled nobody (it’s a Hibs whim and never has) and the subsequent slump surprised no-one. The team weren’t markedly meaner, or any less calamitous. There were lucky wins, decisive moments at every stage on the road to Hampden where fortune smiled, and – until a late spurt – Hibs might have consolidated around 11th. Fenlon’s mantra last season, quietly intoned over his Guinness in his favourite Morningside pub, was “I mustn’t lose a derby, I musn’t lose a derby” and to be fair he didn’t. But the team were over-dependent on Leigh Griffiths and now the latest blond radge Hibee goal-junkie has gone.
Fenlon could have pulled it off, I suppose. He could have persuaded the fans that Hibs were doing OK, and that doing OK was an admirable thing given the current economic climate and the dire plight of the club’s nearest and fear-most. Rod Petrie just about has the faithful believing in the sexiness of a tidy balance-sheet (and he has done this without consenting to a single, in-depth interview about philosophy, ambition, anything – a neat trick). So, keep above Hearts, keep beating them (or grinding out excruciating 0-0 draws), give the kids a chance (because after all it was them who saved the manager at 3-0 down to Falkirk) and talk up the top six as being the promised land and how this time Hibs are really going to scale the hillock. All of that could have done it for Fenlon, but he has now been the manager for the two most shocking results in the club’s 138-year history.
He was hurt by the Malmo mauling; he was embarrassed. He’s going to work harder, get it right, prove the sceptics wrong. But he said these or similar things after Hibs were hammered by Hearts in the 2012 Scottish Cup final. Progress? A sense he is growing as a manager, capable of changing the course of games, and growing into this job? Sorry, but I don’t see these things, and in some ways the Malmo result was the worse of the two. After 5-1, our 7-0 lived on. Now I’m going to have to change my passwords, my codes, everything that’s saying I’m me.