Pat Fenlon already talking a good game

IT WAS no secret that, despite amicable relations with the ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate, when the former Hibs manager Colin Calderwood faced the press he often seemed to give the impression that he was chewing wasps, and preferred doing that to talking.

Contrast Calderwood’s tense, and latterly quite hunted, demeanour with that of Pat Fenlon, his successor in what might be termed the revolving chair at Easter Road.

The diminutive 42-year-old Irishman breezed into Edinburgh and talked up a storm as he dealt comfortably with the biggest trial-by-media of his managerial life, a test he passed with flying colours.

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Watching the bright blue eyes working behind his square-rimmed specs, it was clear that while he possesses the Irish gift of the gab, Fenlon is not the glib sort. This is a man who knows his own mind and speaks it directly, honestly and with an expressiveness which suggests a real passion for football.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday at the end of a long round of interviews, Hibs’ ninth manager in ten years accepted that he was making a big step up from Irish league football, repeatedly stressing that his new job is a “challenge” and an “opportunity.”

His contract is for two-and-a-half years, and family man Fenlon is planning to stay at least that long: “I have two children aged 16 and 11 and the plan is to bring them over at the end of term so they are ready to start next term here.

“Anyone looking in from the outside and seeing nine managers in a short space of time would say ‘is it worth taking a long-term view?’ but I have got to do the job, I’ve got to try and turn it around.

“When you come into management, you know that if things do not go right there is only one end to it. Results have to go right for you to stay in your position, and if they do then the long-term is where I’ll be at.”

If chairman Rod Petrie had introduced Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson as the new management team, certain Hibs fans would still have been sceptical, so how will Fenlon win them round? He looks back to the time when he, as a Catholic, played for Linfield – the Ulster club whose support is drawn from the other side of Ireland’s religious divide – as evidence that he will be able to face up to serious tests of character at least.

“I have always enjoyed a challenge,” said Fenlon, “and having gone to Linfield at the time I did was a challenge, moving from Dublin as one of the first Catholics to play there. You need a challenge, and here the challenge is to get people believing in the team.”

Fenlon was at pains to point out that football on the Emerald Isle has been on the up and up in recent years, and he was happy to discuss the issue of summer football which has made such a difference across the Irish Sea.

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“The game in Ireland has developed over the past nine or ten years,” he said. “All the teams have had good results in Europe and that’s maybe been down to the changeover to summer football.

“It’s a completely different situation because in Ireland there’s not a great history about soccer, it’s not an industry like it is here, and we needed to do something to change that. When we did change [to summer] we got a big improvement in pitches and in playing standards and, when we got into Europe, we were ahead of teams whose seasons hadn’t even kicked off.

“We changed also to get more punters in, but that hasn’t worked so well probably because the facilities are not so great.

“To do the same in Britain might be difficult because there’s a heritage, a history about playing football at certain times of the year, but all things have got to be looked at to see how we can develop the game.”

Even before he visited Easter Road and the club’s training ground in East Lothian in the past few days, Fenlon already knew that Hibs were a much bigger club than anything he had been used to in the League of Ireland where he has played for, or managed, all four Dublin clubs plus Derry City.

He said: “I was at the training facility when we were over playing with Bohemians, and there’s no comparison.

“At Bohemians last year we had to train in the stadium because we didn’t have a training facility, so it’s a little bit different. Sometimes that can be a good thing or a bad thing. You have to make it work as there’s no point in having such a facility if you’re not getting the benefits of it.”

Hibs’ continuing success with youth development is something he is well aware of, but he stresses he will not reply simply on the conveyor belt of young talent: “There’s a big history of players coming through at Hibs and I have to take stock and see if there is anyone in the younger side who is ready to step up.

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“Sometimes younger players can surprise you and nothing fazes them, but you have to get the blend right and have enough experienced players there to get them through matches.”

Fenlon strikes people as a big personality in a tiny frame, and no doubt given his nationality there will be references to leprechauns which he will no doubt laugh off. The challenge facing him is huge, however, and if he can turn Hibs around, the Irishman will be classed as no small magician.

Petrie’s TV moan

HIBS chairman and SPL board member Rod Petrie has criticised the new television deal with Sky and ESPN over the timing of matches.

The five-year £80 million deal will have each broadcaster showing 30 live games per season until 2017, but fans have hit out at the variation in kick-off times under the present deal which has seen some games move to Monday night and others start at 12 noon, with a consequent drop in attendances.

Petrie said: “There’s a degree of disappointment on my part that what the supporters are looking for hasn’t been achieved so far. But hopefully with a longer-term deal, Sky, ESPN and the SPL can work together to find ways in which we can get more supporters in the stadium when a live game is being played, and turn television from a bit of a negative at the moment into a positive for a supporter attending a live match.”

Petrie did welcome the deal overall: “It’s a modest increase and for a reasonable period of time.”