SPL scheduling ticks off Pat Fenlon at relegation crunch time

BY THE time their game at Inverness kicks off tomorrow, Hibernian could be level on points with Dunfermline. Alternatively, should Jim Jefferies’ side have lost to Dundee United, Hibs will go into the match against Caley Thistle knowing a win will take them six points clear of the SPL’s bottom club.

The first scenario might put pressure on Pat Fenlon’s squad; the latter could give them an extra incentive to do well. Either way, it is a position the Hibs manager would rather not be in.

For Fenlon, both this weekend and for as long as the relegation battle rages on, it would be preferable for his team and Dunfermline to start their matches simultaneously. “You would have thought that would have been the easy way to do it, but you just have to get on with it,” he said yesterday.

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“That’s probably the way it’s going to be over the next five or six games. It’s out of our control, and it’s probably not helpful for either club, but it’s the way football is at the moment.”

Tomorrow’s 3pm start will be Hibs’ 12th different kick-off time of the season, and they will add two more in the coming weeks – a situation which Fenlon thinks is crazy. “We’ve played at 14 different times, which is madness,” he said. “But money and TV dictates that, so we just have to get on with it.”

One aspect of the fixture which should definitely encourage Hibs is the fact that Caley Thistle are the only team who have not beaten them in the league this season. Terry Butcher’s side lost at home to a late Garry O’Connor goal in the second game of the season, then drew at Easter Road three days after Christmas.

Nonetheless, Fenlon expects a tough game against opponents who he knows can punish any team who take a half-hearted approach to the contest. “They’re a decent side, they work very hard, and have a system and a shape that they stick to. They’ve done a fantastic job for what they have to be where they are, and that’s credit to the manager.

“We’re going to have to work really hard to get anything out of the game, that’s for certain. No matter who goes there, you have to work harder than they do. It is that type of place where if you don’t fancy the scrap, there’s no point going up, and we’ve discussed that ourselves this week. The football match will take care of itself, but we’ve got to make sure that we’re as committed and give as much as their players.”

Fenlon travelled north in midweek to watch Inverness’ loss to St Johnstone, but his acquaintance with some of their players goes back much further. In particular, he knows Richie Foran well, having played alongside the Caley Thistle captain back in Ireland.

“I played with Richie at Shelbourne when he came in as a kid. He’s done really well for himself. He’s had a good career, Richie. He’s a good lad, an honest player, and is probably essential to what they do. He gets about people, he gets his own players working hard, and he works hard himself. He leads by example.

“I tried to be [an influence on him], because when he was young he was a real handful. He’s the type of lad that you knew was going to do well for himself. He was an honest kid, probably a little bit erratic when he came into the team – I think he was sent off about three times in his first five games.

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“But we had a good manager: Dermot Keely looked after him well and knew how to handle him. A bit like Terry, he’s aggressive and would have been in his face. He’s had a great career, Richie, and he’s a good guy as well, so you’re delighted to see someone like that do well, particularly when you see him coming in as a kid, and having a little bit of a problem at the start, then kicking on and doing really well.”

James McPake is available again for Hibs after missing last week’s defeat by Dundee United, and Danny Galbraith is also in contention for a place in the squad. Tomorrow’s game will come too early for Ian Murray, but the club captain has resumed training, and Fenlon hopes the defender-cum-midfielder will soon be able to add his experience to the relegation fight after a five-month lay-off with a hip injury.

“He’s only had one training session,” Fenlon said of Murray. “We’ve got a [bounce] game on Wednesday and one of the reasons for that is to get him some game time. So hopefully he’ll get through that.”

Murray himself is itching to be back. “We’ve got seven games left now and they’re all massive games for us,” he said. “If you’re not playing, you’re not contributing and that’s frustrating. It’s bad enough, but when your team’s going through a sticky patch it’s worse.

“We’re only three points off the bottom. Dunfermline have picked up points here and there and will continue to do so under their new manager, and unless we can put a wee run together, ultimately it will come down to us and them.”