PAT FENLON didn’t need to wait long to be a appraised of Hibernian’s difficulties in the Scottish Cup. It is over a century since the Leith side last won the principal domestic knockout tournament and, despite being only a few months into his managerial tenure, the Irishman is acutely aware of the desperation to address the issue.
The ongoing drought – currently it is 110 years since Hibs lifted the trophy – is flaunted in the faces of the players and supporters on an annual basis, with the pressure to finally secure the silverware immense. But, with so many other issues to occupy their minds this term and a number of recent additions to the squad less familiar with historical woes, the intention is to treat Saturday’s cup tie with Ayr United as any other game, according to the manager.
“The prize at the end of it is fantastic for everybody and that’s the focus we have to take. If we can get to the semi-final of the cup then it’s a break from the league,” said Fenlon.
“There will be pressure on us, we’ll be favourites to win it being the SPL team, but we should go and enjoy it as well. As a manager I haven’t really changed my approach from the cup to the league. I have treated the games the same. It would only be if we got a little bit further, to the semis or the final, that [the pressure] would start to kick in.
“It’s trying to get a run of games going where you can win games and build confidence. We’ve started on a little one and now we want to keep that going.”
Since his arrival, Hibs have safely negotiated two cup ties, beating Cowdenbeath in tricky tussle before the team followed that up with a victory over Kilmarnock at Easter Road. If they can safely negotiate their way beyond Ayr United, they will be in the last four. But Fenlon has watched Brian Reid’s men – including Tuesday’s excellent 2-1 victory at Livingston – and knows they will be no pushover. On top of an upturn in recent league form, the First Division side have underlined their prowess in cup competition this term, beating three SPL sides en route to the semi-finals of the Scottish Communities League Cup, where they lost to Kilmarnock after extra-time.
“Ayr’s record in the cups has been fantastic,” says Fenlon. “We need to start well down there, but we said that at Cowdenbeath and found ourselves a goal down after 30 seconds! We’re hoping that won’t happen again. We know we’re going to have to be at it attitude-wise and mentally and physically to get something out of the game. We’ll speak about that before the game.”
But there is more than history at stake. If and when the trophy can be delivered to Leith, the men responsible will become heroes. And, in the current climate, Hibs dearly need some of that ilk to dispel the doom and malaise of a season that has spread few smiles.
Rather than looking back at what had not been achieved prior to his arrival, Fenlon is focusing on what could still be salvaged for a season. Currently trying to shake off the shackles of possible relegation and move up the table, he knows that the public’s take on this campaign would quickly shift if he could guide his men to league safety and then deliver the club’s holy grail, “I’d settle for that!” he said as he pondered such an outcome. “That’s football, that’s the way it changes. We could be sitting here in three or four weeks’ time in the semi-final of the cup and higher up the league. Or we could be sitting here out of the cup and still scrapping. That’s just the way football is.
“There are big prizes out there for us at the moment. The biggest prize is staying in the league, and, if we were to get to a semi or a final, it would be fantastic as well.”
Getting to the latter stages offers no guarantees, though. Even progressing to the May finale would not be enough on its own to end the hoodoo. Since last winning the cup in 1902, the club have made it to nine finals, the most recent in 2001. But he is not allowing himself to indulge in dreams of statues erected in his honour, should Hibs finally achieve what has seemed unachievable. Legendary status would be something to mull over at a later date, he says. “I’ll worry about that when it happens! It would be fantastic. It has been a long, long time for everyone to be waiting around, but we’ll wait and see what happens in the first place before we comment too much on it.
“These games are a lot about attitude and desire to win them. But it’s a great opportunity for the players to get into the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup. These chances don’t come around too often in your career so it would be nice for everyone.”
For Hibs, though, those triumphs are even more infrequent. “I think everybody I have met since I came here has brought it up! It sticks in people’s craw, they want to win it and they are desperate to win it. There is a big prize this year but it’s not the Scottish Cup, it’s making sure we stay in the league but it would be a huge bonus to get to the final. And, on the day, anything can happen. But I haven’t got too caught up in it, it’s another game to try to win and we’d like to win it to keep our momentum going. I think there’s a bit more confidence in the players than there was when we went to Cowdenbeath but I thought they handled that one quite well to be fair. It’s just important we focus on the job.”