THIS afternoon Pat Fenlon will take his side to Tynecastle. But strolling into the lion’s den is nothing new to the Irishman. Football has seen to that.
At the age of 16, he left Dublin for London to take up a trainee position at Chelsea. Against a backdrop of heightened IRA activity on the mainland, with the bombings at Harrods and then Brighton, he had more than homesickness to contend with.
“It wasn’t nice but I think that experience definitely helped me in the long run. Being 16 and on your own in a place like London wasn’t easy, especially being Irish at that stage. I had to travel an hour and a half to training. Two tubes and a bus to get there every day. I wouldn’t let my 16-year-old do that now!
“It was a different world then. We probably are still Paddys to them but back then we definitely were and every Paddy was treated with a bit of scepticism in London, or anywhere in England at that time. The 80s was a hard time for Irish people because of what was going on but it toughens you up and you become a bit wiser and a bit wary of certain situations and you learn to handle them better.”
It was a mere appetiser for what was to come. As the first Catholic from Dublin to sign for the historically Protestant club, Linfield, in Belfast, he had to be smuggled in and out of the city by the kitman.
It was a period of his life which could have been fraught with intimidation and fear but Fenlon actually ranks the three years he spent there among the best of his playing career.
“As a kid growing up the last club I would have played for was Linfield because of what it stood for and what they were about. I don’t have any problem saying that because I now know they have some fantastic people there and it is a great club
“There is the saying: ‘If you want to know me, come and live with me’. That’s really what I did. I would have been fearful and sceptical about going into the village area of south Belfast because it is notoriously loyalist but the time I had there was fantastic
“It was something I had a good think about and eventually saw it as a challenge. It was something different. I had been in the league since 1988 and that was 1994. It gave me a great insight into what I thought was the big bad wolf and vice versa for some of the boys up there as well. I was playing football with boys who were staunchly Protestant and had grown up in tough times and in tough areas and we had many a debate about that and that was great because it broadened our horizons and gave us a better understanding of each other and we learned there weren’t monsters behind the wall. It was really good from that point of view and it was good to see things move forward and it helped work its way into all aspects of life. That’s what can be great about football.”
When originally approached, Fenlon had asked – why him? He got an honest answer.
“They said there weren’t enough good Protestant players. They knew they risked alienating themselves. I think that’s the same conclusion Graeme Souness came to at Rangers and those decisions have helped break down a lot of barriers, helped get rid of some of the ignorance.
“When I played at Linfield, the Troubles were still a long way from over but they were making progress to a political end and you could see that things were moving forward. You could talk to people. I lived in Ireland an hour and 29 mins from Belfast but that was a different world to me and that’s probably one complaint I have. We ignored it when we shouldn’t have ignored it, we should have tried to help. But it was interesting to talk to boys who had lived through that, boys who had grown up in Belfast but never been in certain areas, maybe places that were only three streets away. It’s frightening.”
Life has certainly opened Fenlon’s eyes. At 42 year old he is still a young manager but there is a refreshing candour to his conversation. The sense is that having been judged on little more than his accent at an early age, he has learned not to be too swift to judge others – on a personal level at least. When Fenlon arrived at Hibs towards the end of last year, he had no option but to make a quick judgment on the players, professionally. Several were moved on and a succession of signings and loan deals were secured in January.
Since then there has been progress in the cup and a glimmer of hope in the league but improvement remains an ongoing project. For a manager who has been used to challenging for titles and lifting trophies, life at Hibs has been a deviation. He hopes it is temporary. Because while plotting survival in the SPL and ensuring an ongoing interest in the Scottish Cup are the short-term goals, the rest of the plan centres on making sure the club moves onwards and upwards next season.
Like everyone else who took an interest in the Scottish game, Fenlon had heard the tales of indiscipline, and read about off-the-field errors of judgment and brushes with the law. He says there has been little evidence of it since his arrival, though. It’s not surprising because, while Fenlon is convivial company, he exudes a no-nonsense approach.
“This is a big football club and it has had its reputation, not tarnished, but a fair few things have gone wrong which impact on the club and we want players who want to play for the club but who also want to behave in the right manner.
“Back home there were very good players in our league that we didn’t sign and, when I was manager at Shelbourne and Bohs [Bohemians], we probably could have signed anyone but we didn’t sign some that maybe people expected us to because we realised they were good players but they weren’t what we were looking for in the way they behaved, whether in the club or outwith the club.”
A principled fella, it’s easy to imagine Fenlon enjoying a hearty exchange of views on life, football and everything in between. But, while other opinions are taken on board, when on duty there is no doubting that he is boss.
And, discussing the future of Scottish football, Fenlon has strong views. Describing a lot of the opinions aired in a recent televised debate as “utter drivel”, he does not believe that we can rear a nation of pseudo Dutch or Spanish kids. It’s not, he insists, in our DNA.
“There are loads of things you can do for a player to try to help their game, give them an extra yard of pace or work on their touch, but there’s no point in trying to make a Scottish Messi. Those kind of players just come along, and not that often. It’s Kenny Dalglish for Scotland or Liam Brady for Ireland. Barcelona helped develop Messi but he has always had natural ability.
“You can’t make a top-class player, you can help but a lot of it is just natural ability. You can’t move too far away from the attributes that good Scottish players give you. You can try to add to them but, if you try to change them drastically, then I think you are going to make a big mistake.”
And, on the subject of playing the “Hibs way”, Fenlon says he isn’t hung up on delivering a specific style. He wants to win and will set his team up in any way he thinks can deliver.
The fact that people don’t always agree about football is what keeps it interesting. Especially on derby days.
“You watch Hibs v St Mirren, Hibs v Aberdeen, even Hibs v Rangers but then you go to Hibs v Hearts and it is a different game and I love it,” says Fenlon. “That passion, that desire to win, that little extra, that’s what football is all about for me.
“People get caught up in it and I don’t see a major problem with that so long as it doesn’t lead to anything serious and so long as after the game, it is forgotten about and people get on with living side by side. If you take that away from football, particularly in Scotland, you’re going to kill the game.”
The Hibs manager still has his worries and they won’t ease until SPL survival is secure but one thing he doesn’t need to worry about is a lack of passion this afternoon.