Hibernian manager Pat Fenlon yesterday accepted that last year’s pre-Scottish Cup final retreat to Ireland with his players hadn’t worked.
But then it wouldn’t take a genius to realise that the plan to relax in Dublin prior to the Hampden clash with Hearts did not produce the desired results. The 5-1 defeat still smarts and the manager won’t be making the same mistake twice.
Rather than seek to escape the build-up, he has urged his players to “embrace” the cup final countdown this time around, starting with tomorrow’s Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle. The Irishman has been gladdened by the way his side have bounced back against Hearts this season. Although their rivals are currently a point above then in the league, Hibs will tomorrow hope to complete their first unbeaten season against Hearts since 2000-01.
“Looking at last year, how we prepared obviously didn’t work,” he says. “So we’ve got to learn from that. When people ask me what I have learned from last year’s final, it’s the little things that you try and pick up on maybe change. I think we’ve got to embrace the next two weeks, and I have said that to the players.”
“There are a lot of clubs maybe thinking: ‘Oh, let’s get this out of the way and go on holiday’. But we’ve got a massive game on Sunday, then two league games that can help us get into a really good position.
“And then, at the end of that, we have got a fantastic day out at Hampden trying to win the Scottish Cup. It doesn’t get any better than that for the players. I have told them to embrace it, go and enjoy it.”
According to Fenlon, the key is “to keep the intensity up” prior to Scottish Cup final against Celtic a fortnight tomorrow. This is in marked contrast to his thoughts prior to last year’s clash with Hearts at Hampden. On that occasion, he felt the players would benefit being spared the frenetic build-up to such an eagerly anticipated clash. Not since 1896 had the two Edinburgh sides met in a Scottish Cup final, and the interest was intense. Fenlon took his players away from it all but by about five minutes in the second half at Hampden, with Hibs already trailing 4-1, he had probably already concluded that this had not been among his wisest decisions.
He accepts now that the intensity was allowed to drop too much over in Ireland. “We have to keep at a level where we keep going out to win matches, which means playing at a real high intensity,” he says. “When we went away before the final last year, yeah, they [the players] probably had too much time on their hands.”
So, no pre-cup final trip this year, he was asked? “I don’t think we will be going away before the final,” he replied.
The rearranged match with Kilmarnock on Wednesday night means that Fenlon has been forced to re-think things anyway, as he prepares to face three games in a week. Normally, a manager might be expected to take the chance to rest players before a final, but Fenlon appears absolutely committed to picking his best side for tomorrow’s fixture, at least. He knows that players such as Leigh Griffiths wouldn’t thank him for being rested. Fenlon believes you have to take a fatalistic view when considering what might or what might not happen.
“You can get injured in a warm-up, injured in little possession games [in training],” he says. “It happens and you have to deal with it as a player and manager. I have to pick a team to win this game, then the game after that, and the game after that – and then the cup final at the end of the season. That is what I am paid to do.”
Fenlon reflected on Hibs’ three draws and Scottish Cup victory over Hearts in their four meetings so far this season. “We have definitely made the games against them more competitive than they have been for a few seasons,” he said. “I thought last year we rolled over too easily against them. We have obviously changed that.
“We have not gone ahead of them in any way,” he conceded. “But the gradual plan was to be competitive and then kick on from there.”
Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, meanwhile, believes that beating Hibs for the first time this season would make the Tynecastle club’s season “slightly more bearable”.
He said: “We have not beaten them this season so it is the last game to get a win over them, which I think after the season we have had would make it slightly more bearable.”
He bristled, however, at the suggestion that if Hibs manage to earn another result against their rivals then it is evidence of some form of power shift in the capital.
“I don’t understand how about one win in 15 or 16 games can signal a power shift,” he said, with reference to Hibs’ 1-0 Scottish Cup victory earlier this season. “Yes, they [Hibs] have improved from last season, when I think we won every tie. But I don’t see how you can call that a power shift. If you look at their league record, they have not beaten us in the league since 2009, it’s been a while.”
McDonald, though, did concede that Hearts were extremely fortunate to have kept their unbeaten league run against Hibs going during the most recent staging of the fixture at Easter Road, when Griffiths’ tremendous long-range free-kick clearly crossed the line after crashing down off the bar. The goal, however, was almost inexplicably missed by the match officials and the game ended 0-0.
“It was well over the line,” he said. “But at the time I couldn’t tell you if it was in or not. It was only after seeing the pictures afterwards I knew we’d had a bit of luck. But we haven’t had much of that this season.
“You could look at the Scottish Cup tie earlier in the season when the Hibs winner took a deflection and say that’s the breaks evened out. Hopefully it is a straightforward game on Sunday.”