Pat Fenlon hopes Hibs story can repeat itself

Pat Fenlon knows what it will mean if he replicates fellow Irishman Dan McMichael’s 1902 Cup victory

Hibernian manager Pat Fenlon. Picture: SNS
Hibernian manager Pat Fenlon. Picture: SNS

IT IS said that Dan McMichael prepared his boys for the 1902 Scottish Cup final, not by bringing them to see Buffalo Bill’s stage show in Leith, but by sending them on long walks to Portobello, feeding them thick-cut sandwiches and cocoa and getting them to play dominoes in the evenings before the denouement with Celtic and the kind of glory that none of them could ever know would last so long. “Sandwiches and cocoa,” smiles Pat Fenlon. “We could probably do that right enough. I don’t know if I could get the likes of [Leigh] Griffiths to play dominoes, mind you.”

McMichael was a tall, serious-looking Irishman with a bushy moustache, the last Hibs boss to win the Scottish Cup. For many years he was the lifeblood of the club: the manager, the treasurer, the bottle-washer-in-chief. He lived and died on Easter Road, a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic. He took Hibs to Falkirk one Saturday afternoon in 1919 and was dead five days later. To illustrate their sadness at the loss of their greatest servant, Hibs sent a wreath – with a broken harp.

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Sitting in a room overlooking Easter Road, Fenlon has the Irish part covered, he’s OK for the serious-looking side of things, he says he could always grow something on his face for the Cup final, “but I’m fecked for height”. He’s pointing over yonder, to where the cemetery is, to where McMichael lays in an unmarked – but not for long – grave. “Boys from the St Patrick’s branch of the supporters’ club have been doing great work, you know. One lad cycled from London to here to raise funds for a gravestone for McMichael. I met him when he arrived back. That’s something else, isn’t it? You know what, we might not have won loads of things at Hibs but this club has a serious history.” And to emphasise it, he says it again. “A serious history.”

On the wall of his office he has a letter from a man in County Wexford telling of an ancestor who was big at Hibs. These are the things that he knows now that he didn’t know then, and by “then” he means in the build-up to last season’s Cup final against Hearts. “I probably didn’t realise what the Scottish Cup meant to people in relation to the history of the club,” he says. “I wasn’t a Hibs fan as a boy but the longer you’re here the more engrossed you get and the more people you meet. When I came in first I don’t think I fully made the connection of what winning the Cup would mean to this place. I see it now, though. Jaysus, I see it.”

We’re in the room that Fenlon retreated to after Hampden last May, just the two of us and there’s probably more noise here now on this Thursday afternoon than there was then, when the place was packed and the air was funereal. He calls it the worst day in his football life, a horrible experience, a numb feeling taking hold of him and not letting go for quite some time. “To not perform and just lie down…”

Things have changed. Oh sure, there’s been far too many losses and draws for his liking this season, but there’s been improvement. “We’re miles ahead of where we were 12 months ago, character-wise. The dressing room was awful when I got here. Bad pros, bad attitudes, poor, really poor. The ones we brought in are good fellas. They get on with their work. They’re not looking for excuses. The victory over Hearts last week gives us a lot of encouragement because over the last three or four years we just rolled over in games against them. There was a lot made about Hearts this season introducing young players and all that, but we had a younger squad last weekend than they did. We’ve got some fantastic young players here.”

Fenlon’s story began in Finglas on Dublin’s northside. He grew up a Celtic fan which was a bit of a rarity in 1970s Ireland. Every one of his mates was a Liverpool supporter and so when he was old enough to travel to Glasgow he had to find a new gang. There was no handy route from Dublin in those days. No boat to be had and no money for a flight. It was up on the bus to Larne and across to Stranraer, rendezvous at 4am and home again straight after. “We were like zombies coming back.

“I never followed an English team as a kid. Even though everybody here thinks everybody in Ireland is a Celtic fan, in fact there weren’t many people at home that had Celtic as their main team in those days. It was Liverpool. All the lads I grew up with were Liverpool fans. I had no interest in that.”

He has embraced Scotland, but misses Ireland. Misses the family anyway. Misses the people. Doesn’t miss the politicians or those who have brought the country to it knees. He’s talking now about the government and the scandals of the Celtic Tiger years. “The biggest problem was the neglect to places like Finglas where I grew up. Totally neglected. The wealth in those years never circulated to everybody, it was kept to a certain percentage of the country and we’re paying for that now. The ordinary working-class people in areas like mine are really, really struggling. I grew up in Finglas South which was a fantastic place to live but over the last ten years has had a horrible amount of everything and has sort of lost its community feeling.

“There’s no infrastructure there for kids and this is repeated all over the country. Nobody thought that by building houses they needed to build something for all these kids to do because if they don’t they’ll go and do something they’re not supposed to do. I love Ireland, love the people, love going back, it will never be anything different to me. We’ve got problems, though, and the people have taken a lot of flak. In any other country in Europe there’d be mayhem. We took it on the chin but you can only take so much. Maybe we let them [the government, the banks, the builders] away with too much.”

He can do nothing about his homeland’s financial woes but then again he has enough on his plate dealing with his lot at Easter Road. All the hard work of winning things as manager of Shelbourne and Bohemians and Derry has paid off, he says, by getting the job at Hibs. This is what he wanted. A bigger testing ground. Well, he’s got it and he’s brought to them a second Scottish Cup final and the key man who took him there – and who kept Hibs afloat in the SPL – was one he may lose in the summer, the irreplaceable Griffiths

“You know the story. I’d love to keep him, but you’re caught. On one hand, I want him to stay but on the other hand I’d like to see him play at a higher level because he can if he puts his mind to it. He’s maturing as a player and as a person. People think he’s this and he’s that but Leigh doesn’t cause me any problems. He wants to train and wants to play, it’s when he leaves the training ground… If I could keep him there for eight hours a day I’d keep him, but that’s a bit unlikely. It’s when he leaves. There’s no malice in Leigh. At times there’s a bit of stupidity, but no malice.

“One of the reasons he’s done well here is because everyone wants him and loves him. That’s massive. He enjoys coming here and he knows the fans adore him, knows that people in the club want to look after him and help him and I think that’s what he needs, he needs an arm around him. He’s got a few kicks up the arse as well, which he also needs, but mostly he needs a bit of lovin’. There’s no manager at Wolves yet, so we’ll see what happens. I’ve got two thoughts in my head about him: he’s got all the ability to go back down to England and be a big success but, equally, he might need another year to develop as a person as well as a footballer.”

Griffiths gives Hibs a puncher’s chance against Celtic. He scored the winner against them in the SPL this season, after all. “All I want them to do is to embrace this final because we didn’t do it 12 months ago. We rolled over. I want them to enjoy it. I want them to play. Celtic are going for a double and they’ll be up for it, but if we relish the occasion then I think we’ll be OK. That’s all you can ask for,” says Fenlon.

Soon there will be a gravestone in the cemetery across the way. Dan McMichael, the last Hibs manager to win the Scottish Cup – or the last but one?

“Maybe we’ll give the dominoes a try after all.”