Stuart Bathgate: Pat Fenlon’s time has run out

Picture: Toby Williams
Picture: Toby Williams
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THE question now for Hibernian is surely not whether Pat Fenlon should go. It’s when Rod Petrie deems it convenient to get rid of him.

Having already made too many managerial changes over the past five or six years, the Easter Road chairman would far rather avoid one more any time soon. In a clear sign that Petrie was willing to give Fenlon another chance after the disappointments of the past two seasons, the manager was allowed to sign eight players over the summer, and the introduction of Jimmy Nicholl was designed to introduce some much-needed wisdom and experience to the managerial team.

Even after the 7-0 home defeat by Malmo, word from within the club was that change was not imminent. Concern, but not panic, was how the mood within the Hibs boardroom might best be summed up then.

The inference was that the Europa League loss to the Swedes – 9-0 in aggregate after a flattering first leg in which Hibs conceded only twice – was an exceptional event. Once normal service was resumed, the squad would show its quality and prove itself to be able to hold its own within the Scottish Premiership.

Two matches in, and we have seen no evidence of that. Hibs were at least stuffier in their first league game against Motherwell than they had been against Malmo, and they smothered Stuart McCall’s side in midfield for more than 80 minutes before going down to a late breakaway goal by new signing Henri Anier. But they offered very little creatively then, and that was also the case at Tynecastle yesterday, against a Hearts squad reduced to the bare bones.

In the aftermath of the Malmo game, Fenlon refused to comment on a report suggesting he had been given an ultimatum from Petrie: beat Hearts or lose your job. It is not Petrie’s style to make such a threat, and it would in any case have made the chairman a hostage to fortune.

Nonetheless, the embattled manager must have been banking on yesterday’s game to provide an upturn in events. In last season’s five meetings with Hearts, Hibs won two – including the Scottish Cup tie – and drew the other three. If that was against a team containing experienced players such as Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas, Danny Grainger and Mehdi Taouil, surely they could have been expected to avoid defeat against a bunch of youngsters?

Instead, they lost. What is more, while Hibs gave as good as they got for the first hour or more in terms of physical competitiveness, they looked a demoralised lot once Callum Paterson had put Hearts in front. They certainly did not seem like a team who, as Fenlon argued after the game, just need one decent break for the confidence to come flooding back. What is perhaps worst of all, from the point of view of both the club’s supporters and of those many neutrals who can recall some good Hibs sides of the not-too-distant past, this lot are not even playing decent football. That was always the consolation for the club’s fans, and something to look forward to for less frequent visitors to Easter Road: even if Hibs lost, they would try to play a bit.

Some Hibs supporters have been tempted to take the whole thing too far and find consolation in the argument that, when their team lost, they did so in style. Mixu Paatelainen, for example, got a lot of stick for trying to compromise the purist approach of his predecessor John Collins with something a little more practical and direct. And he would get that stick even when Hibs won.

What we have with Fenlon now is a lot less appealing than anything played under the pragmatic Finn. Hibs are losing, and they are not even playing football.

The Edinburgh derby has long favoured frenzy over finesse, energy over elegance. But amid all the physical competition there have always been some players on either side who have risen above the burly; who have known that there is more to winning a football match than merely prevailing in a numbing series of meaty tussles.

With Fenlon in charge of one team, those players are in desperate danger of being made redundant. And failure to make his over-physical strategy work surely means that the manager is in equally severe peril of joining the ranks of the unemployed himself.

Hibs are not a bad collection of players. Fenlon has made a few dud signings, but his current squad has a fair number of individuals who are all capable of doing a decent job. On their own, that is.

Together, they simply do not look like a coherent group, and the manager has to be the one to take responsibility for that failing.