Hibs must gel fast to ease pressure on Pat Fenlon

Pat Fenlon's men carry greater derby clout but have yet to play as a unit. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Pat Fenlon's men carry greater derby clout but have yet to play as a unit. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ONE team has substantial cash at its disposal and has again recruited heavily over the summer.

That team is defending a decent unbeaten run against its rivals, and looks like having the edge when it comes to sheer physical bulk.

You could have written those same two sentences before an Edinburgh derby any number of times in recent years, and in every case Hearts would have been the team in question. This time, though, there has been a spot of role reversal, and it is Hibernian who have the advantage, in those respects at least.

Pat Fenlon brought in eight players over the close season, including striker James Collins, signed for £200,000. Collins, midfielder Owain Tudur Jones and central defender Michael Nelson are all big men who can be relied upon to give as good as they get if, as is likely, the contest becomes less than cerebral.

What is more, the Easter Road manager has not been on the losing side in the fixture for five games now. If he avoids defeat tomorrow, Fenlon will be halfway to his club’s longest unbeaten run against their oldest foes.

Granted, that latter statistic cries out for a bit of context. Hibs’ record of 12 games without defeat is dwarfed by Hearts’ best of 22, while the Tynecastle club had another lengthy run of 17. And of course, none of Fenlon’s five unbeaten matches last season – four in the league and one in the Scottish Cup – came anywhere close to the significance of the game which marked the end of the 2011-12 season, Hearts’ historic 5-1 victory in the cup final.

But these are at least indications of how things have changed since the days when Hibs chairman Rod Petrie was criticised by the club’s fans for stinginess. That fee of £200,000 for Collins is extremely modest compared to the amounts being thrown about elsewhere in the game, but in Scotland it shows that, outside of Celtic’s Neil Lennon, Fenlon has been given greater resources than any of his peers in Scotland’s top division.

It is for that reason, as much as for his team’s embarrassing 7-0 home defeat by Malmo a couple of weeks back, that Fenlon is under far more pressure tomorrow than his opposite number. Unlike Hearts manager Gary Locke, the Hibs boss has been able to reshape his side this summer – and what is more, for the second successive close season.

This is Fenlon’s team, and he has been able to sign a host of players who by general consent are no duds. In other words, if they fail to function together, the blame will be laid squarely at the manager’s door.

And they have been failing to function. Hibs have lost their first three competitive matches, scoring no goals and conceding ten. Fenlon has denied being given an ultimatum by Petrie to the effect that he will lose his job if he loses tomorrow, but it is clear that a victory will at least buy him some time to find a way of making those new signings fit into a coherent team.

Yet for all that there is less pressure on Locke, he admitted yesterday that he envied Fenlon – and indeed all the other managers who had the money and the permission to sign players. “I’m envious of every manager right now,” said Locke, whose club are banned from signing any new players aged 21 or over for the next two transfer windows as a punishment for going into administration.

“It’s not just Hibs: everyone else can sign players and we can’t do that just now. So of course you are going to be envious. But we are where we are: there’s no point me worrying about who other people are signing.

“I know I can’t sign anyone so I just need to get on with it. All I’m bothered about is Hearts, and we have virtually a fully-fit squad, so hopefully we can get the three points.”

As a Hearts player, Locke always played with complete commitment for the club he supported as a boy, and he expects the same of the current generation of players. He was therefore surprised, in the last derby of last season, when his team fell short of that expectation.

“It was a sore one,” Locke said of that 2-1 home defeat. “And what was worse for me was the way we played.

“If you’re going to get beaten in a derby there’s a way to do it and that certainly wasn’t the way. We never turned up on the day, we didn’t compete, and that was the thing that really disappointed me. If you’re going to get beaten you have got to compete, that’s the most important thing. You have to look as if you are up for the game.

“And certainly that game it looked as if we were second best all over the pitch, and we can’t have that again. But this is a completely different team, we have a young, fresh squad, and we’re looking forward to the game.”

Since that match last spring, Billy Brown – Fenlon’s assistant manager two seasons ago – has returned to Tynecastle to work with Locke.

“He’s been unbelievable for me,” the manager said. “It was difficult at times for me last year – I felt there was a lot of pressure on myself – so it’s great I have someone I can bounce ideas off. And someone with Billy’s experience in the game has been invaluable for me, because I’m a young manager. So to have someone with that pedigree in the dugout beside me, it means everything.

“Everything that has come my way I have been ready for – apart from the administration side of things. That was a nightmare. But I feel I’m dealing with things reasonably well. I’m enjoying it, and I just hope we can get a couple of wins to kick start the season.”

Fenlon, needless to say, hopes the same, and accepted he has been given the wherewithal to reshape his squad in the way he wanted after they were frequently blamed for being soft touches. “I just felt when we had a shaky spell, and pitches weren’t as good as they are normally, that we struggled a bit physically,” he said. “With Michael, Jonesy, James and Rowan [Vine] coming in, they’re on the big side.”

If Fenlon’s priority in the wake of the 5-1 loss was to avoid defeat, he is beginning to feel that he can concentrate a little more on playing football.

“I don’t think [tomorrow] will be any different to probably most of the derbies I’ve been involved in so far,” he added. “They’re fairly frantic and a bit mad at times. “Maybe the last [derby] there was a little bit of football broke out, but in most of them it was fairly gung-ho and hectic and in your face. There was very little in the games. Even the ones we won were very tight. [This] is a big game for both clubs, but I’m hoping that there’s a little bit more football involved in it as well.”

If it comes down to a football contest, Hearts should hold their own, particularly with Leigh Griffiths gone from the Hibs side and Alex Harris out through injury. But Hibs, for all their failings so far as a team, have some dependable individuals. If enough of the visiting team do themselves justice – and if Fenlon makes decent use of his bench – Hibs should get a result that lifts some of the pressure on the beleaguered manager, for a week or two at least.