The pressure may be relentlessly building on everyone at Easter Road, but today Hibs fans were assured the one man who won’t crack is boss Pat Fenlon.
The Irishman was brought in last November to replace Colin Calderwood but has so far failed to turn the Edinburgh club around, boasting a record of just two wins in 16 SPL matches which leaves Hibs a mere three points above basement outfit Dunfermline.
There’s no escaping the fact Fenlon and his players are embroiled in a desperate battle to survive in the top flight of Scottish football but winning that fight will be, according to first team coach Liam O’Brien, only the first step for his countryman. O’Brien watched Fenlon enjoy success after success in Ireland, being his long-time assistant at Bohemians before teaming up again with him on this side of “the water.”
And, although it’s been a rocky road so far, O’Brien insisted Fenlon won’t be deflected from his aim of bringing far happier times back to Easter Road.
In an exclusive interview with the Evening News, he said: “Pat and I have worked together for the last five years. He’s a very strong character and I think people know he is a winner, his record speaks for itself.
“The one thing about Pat is his attention to detail, it’s second to none, everything his done properly, professionally.
“He is a good man and, given time, he will turn this club around. In my opinion, people have to stick with him. He has won a lot in his managerial career, a lot of trophies. He’s been used to winning, not losing.”
Fenlon, of course, became Hibs’ fifth manager in as many years, the Easter Road merry-go-round having seen John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes and Calderwood all depart almost as quickly as they’d arrived.
The lack of stability in the managerial hotseat has been seen by many as a major factor behind Hibs’ current predicament, each move resulting in a “changing of the guard” as a phalanx of new players has arrived to replace those already in place. Fenlon himself has overseen an overhaul of the squad he inherited from Calderwood, most of those brought in being on loan deals with the over-riding priority being to ensure Hibs retain their SPL status before plans for the longer term can be realised.
And, while results may suggest otherwise, 47-year-old O’Brien firmly believes the management team of Fenlon, Billy Brown and himself, have improved the team. Consistency, though, remains somewhat elusive, O’Brien admitting he’d felt the corner had been turned a couple of weeks ago only for defeats by Hearts and Dundee United to plunge supporters into the depths of despair once more.
The former Manchester United, Newcastle United and Republic of Ireland defender said: “Pat was given the job because results were poor with the group of players that was here. He has made a few changes and I think we have improved them.
“We have not had that rub of the green in some games, against Aberdeen and St Mirren for instance, we felt we should have won both games rather than draw them, then we’d have an extra four points.
“But we have improved them and if we keep working hard as a group then, at the end of the season, I think we will be okay.
“Before the Hearts game, I thought we had turned the corner. We had a great result away to Kilmarnock and then, even although they are a division below us, we put on a really good performance against Ayr United. We went into the Hearts match with a bit of confidence but we didn’t really turn up in the first half. We changed things around, had a word with them at half-time and, in the second half, we were unlucky not to score while they didn’t really threaten our goal until the last 15 minutes when we were pushing forward.
“Go back to last Saturday, being realistic Dundee United are the form team in the league at the moment, they are second only to Celtic in the way they have been playing. They’ve had a settled side, Peter Houston has been able to pick the same team week in, week out.
“They are very good but in the first half we matched them and were probably a little bit better than them, In the second half they upped their game and we did not match them which was the disappointing thing for us.
“Realistically, we are probably not good enough for the top six but we are capable of beating the teams in and around us so every game we have from now on is a cup final – and we have a semi-final to look forward to as well, a day at Hampden.”
Results such as those suffered at the hands of Hearts and Dundee United have seen Hibs branded in some quarters as ‘hapless’, ‘hopeless’, ‘gutless’ or ‘spineless’, none of which, as O’Brien admitted, makes for particularly pleasant reading.
He argued, though, that praise has been in short supply on other occasions. “It’s not nice reading that sort of stuff and sometimes we have not had enough credit given to us when we have won games. People are entitled to their opinions, but it’s not about them but us. If you read the reports and go listening to people you’d think this place is down, that it’s all doom and gloom but if you were at our training sessions you’d see the players are up.
“What we need is everyone together, the staff, the players, the supporters. We know we are in a relegation fight, I have been there myself as a player a couple of times and we do need everyone together.”
Adding extra spice to the relegation duel was the arrival of Jim Jefferies at East End Park, the former Hearts manager taking over from the sacked Jim McIntyre, his first match in charge a 1-1 draw with St Mirren trimming Hibs’ advantage from four points to three.
O’Brien, however, believes that while Jefferies’ appointment will no doubt have helped fray the nerves of Hibs fans just that little bit more, it will be no distraction to the Hibs management team. He said: “It’s still the same group of players over there, that hasn’t changed.
“What goes on at Dunfermline is their concern, we just have to concentrate on Hibs. Our job is to keep this club in the SPL and hopefully then we can kick on next season.” O’Brien knows from his time with Newcastle just how a club’s fortunes can be transformed in a relatively short period of time. Having been relegated to what is now the Championship, the Tyneside club were just one game away from falling even further, but defeated Leicester City at Filbert Street on the final day of season 1992/93.
He said: “There was all the euphoria, everyone thrilled at staying up. Then, with virtually the same group of players although Kevin Keegan had brought a couple of new faces in, we won the league the next season. You never know what can happen in football.”
O’Brien wasn’t suggesting for one minute that Hibs will do likewise but he insisted there was a common thread to the story in that to regard success as merely avoiding relegation for clubs of their stature was simply unacceptable.
He said: “This is a massive club, everything is here, the stadium, the training centre, great facilities. What is needed is a good team on the park.”
Amid it all there is one thing of which O’Brien is certain, Fenlon won’t buckle in the face of adversity, or even give walking away a second thought.
He said: “Pat is a very deep person, he keeps a lot inside himself. He won’t let himself go as much as he should do, if I am being honest. Knowing the way he is I don’t think all this will affect him as it would other people.
“He believes in himself, the players he has brought here and those that were already here, that they are good enough to get us out of this situation.
“That’s what we have to do, concentrate on staying in this league and you will see a different Pat Fenlon next season. He is not a quitter, no way. He’s done very well in Ireland and, let’s be clear, the one thing about him is he’s focused on doing well here.
“He will want to turn things around and given time he will. Believe me.”