Easter Road doubters won’t faze determined Fenlon

PAT Fenlon will not be fazed by the scepticism with which many Hibernian supporters are likely to greet him if, as expected, he is unveiled as the club’s new manager this afternoon.

Having faced up to and conquered the hostility which greeted him at one of his previous clubs, the 42-year-old Irishman is more than capable of shrugging off a negative reaction.

The hostility in question came from some Linfield fans when Fenlon, a Dubliner, signed for the protestant Belfast club in 1993. Given the derogatory nickname “Pat Fenian” by the less enlightened element of the club’s fans, he soon won the Windsor Park crowd over, to the extent that he received a new sobriquet, “Billy” Fenlon, and was accepted as one of their own.

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That was in his playing days, when his spirit and tenacity were guaranteed to make an impact, and when his fondness for nutmegging opponents is said to have given rise to another, longer-lasting nickname, Nutsy.

He had an impressive way of dealing with physical adversity too, notably when, as a Shelbourne player, he recovered from a severely broken leg to help the club win the double in the 1999-2000 season.

Of course, the kind of adversity which greets him at Easter Road will be of an altogether different order.

The task of turning Hibs round has been too much for several good men in the past few years – men who had enjoyed more illustrious careers than Fenlon when they came to the job, and yet proved unable to drag the playing staff up to their level. Hence the scepticism of a section of the Hibs support, and the disgruntlement of others, who wanted their former player Michael O’Neill installed as successor to the unlamented Colin Calderwood.

Sacked at the start of this month, Calderwood had experience at a higher level both as a Scotland international player and as a manager and coach in England.

His predecessor, John Hughes, had enjoyed some success with Falkirk and was a known quantity and former Easter Road favourite. So were the two managers before him, Mixu Paatelainen and John Collins, both also former Hibs players.

Having neither played nor managed in Scotland or England, Fenlon is a different case. He was virtually unknown here until he came close to landing the Dundee United job at the start of last year and, between then and being linked with Hibs, the only other times he appeared on Scottish football’s radar was when he was in the running for vacancies at Kilmarnock and Motherwell.

That interest in a move to the SPL indicates that Fenlon regards the Scottish game as a step up from what he knows, and few in this country would disagree with that.

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However, the crucial question is precisely how big a step up it is and whether, in attempting it, Fenlon will overstretch himself or take it in his stride.

The League of Ireland and the level of play there is still used as a byword for the fate that could befall the Scottish game if it continues to decline, but there is surely an element of outmoded condescension in that comparison. It is certainly worse off than even the SPL financially, as Fenlon knows all too well, with his own club, Bohemians, being close to meltdown. But that lack of money surely makes Fenlon’s achievements to date all the more respectable, particularly when it comes to European competition.

He began his managerial career as Shelbourne’s player-manager in 2002, taking the Tolka Park club to second in the league. A decision the following year to concentrate solely on managing was quickly vindicated, as Shelbourne won the league, then retained the title in 2004.

That year he took Shelbourne to the third qualifying round of the Champions League, beating Iceland’s KR Reykjavik and Hajduk Split of Croatia before going down to Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna. It was the first time an Irish club had gone that far in the competition.

After a fallow year in 2005, Shelbourne won the title again in 2006. At the end of the year, Fenlon moved to Derry City, but lasted only five months. He marked time for a while as manager of Ireland’s under-23 team, then, at the end of 2007, took over at Bohemians. He won the double in 2008 and retained the league in 2009, before swingeing budget cuts took their toll.

His successes on the field came while being forced to firefight off it, with previous unwanted duties as manager having included cleaning the dressing-room and trying to drum up sponsorship in order to pay the players’ wages. At Hibs, he will be joining a club whose fortunes have been the other way round. A model of good order behind the scenes, but chronic underachievers on the park.

Dundee United defender Sean Dillon, a fellow Dubliner who played for Fenlon at Shelbourne, thinks his old boss will thrive when allowed to devote all his time to football.

“It will be a huge relief for Pat to work at a place like Hibs in a league like the SPL and I have no doubt that he will be a big success over here,” Dillon said yesterday.

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“You look at all that Pat has achieved over the years, all he has won in the game in Ireland, yet that was always against the backdrop of financial problems, hassle over the players’ wages and things like that.

“You can only imagine what he could have done if he didn’t have all those worries and hassles, and he should get that chance to do his work without financial worries at Hibs.”

All sorts of other worries await at Easter Road and it is uncertain how much scope Fenlon will have to change a squad which has seen too much churning already in recent years.

But he believes in himself, those who have seen him at work believe in him too, and it will take more than the odd jaded chorus of “Pat Who?” to divert him from his aim of succeeding in Scotland.