BEFORE his first match as Hibernian manager, Pat Fenlon signed autographs, posed for the odd photo and shook hands with supporters who wished him luck. Heaven knows, he will need it.
BEFORE his first match as Hibernian manager, Pat Fenlon signed autographs, posed for the odd photo and shook hands with supporters who wished him luck. Heaven knows, he will need it. Preferring to take a back seat until he has a full week of training under his belt, the Irishman saw from his berth in the directors’ box the scale of the challenge ahead.
In an ugly encounter ruined by the conditions, Hibs took an early lead thanks to Richie Towell, threw it away with two soft goals in quick succession and thereafter showed the chronic lack of confidence that has paralysed them lately.
Had Marcus Haber’s late shot not slammed off the woodwork, this could have been quite a caning for a group of players who were supposed to be playing for their future.
How Fenlon must hope that he can emulate his fellow Irishman, Steve Lomas, who has made a flying start with St Johnstone. This was a comfortable home debut for Lomas, who presided over a scoreless draw at Ibrox seven days earlier. Don’t even think about suggesting to the arriving Hibs manager that taking charge of a successful side is more difficult.
It was an awkward day for Billy Brown, the assistant manager who has been in charge of Hibs since Colin Calderwood’s departure. As he patrolled the technical area, trying his best to be professional during his last match in charge, Fenlon was seated just a few rows behind the dugout. To make matters worse, the new manager had alongside him Liam O’Brien, the former Newcastle United player who was his No.2 at Bohemians.
Brown, who has yet to discuss his future with Fenlon, says that he would like to remain at Easter Road, but only if he is allowed to make a meaningful contribution. “I’ll see what he wants me to do, how I would fit in,” said Brown. “I’ll have a wee blether with him and see what the score is. I like it here. I like to be in football. I have a lot of enthusiasm for football. I like being at a big club. If it is possible I can do something here – I don’t just want to be an add-on – I would like to stay. But it’s up to Pat. He is the manager.”
This was Brown’s second match in charge, neither of which has resulted in victory. He said that the performance typified Hibs this season: fine when they are not under pressure, but when their opponents turn up the heat, they cannot handle it. He said that a couple of victories would lift them out of relegation trouble, but he wasn’t sure where those victories would come from.
“It’s a difficult task when you look at the results this season. I don’t want to be a doom and gloom merchant, but you can’t kid anybody on. Facts are facts. It’s going to be difficult to turn this round… but not impossible.
“The players are going to have to stand up and be counted. They are not doing it. I told them at half-time that their jobs are on the line. Hibs are a big club. They shouldn’t be in this position but they are because they haven’t done well enough. You can sack every manager you want, but if it’s the same players, and they get the same results, they’ve got to get their fingers out.”
Oddly, the outlook didn’t seem to be so bad for Hibs, who were a goal up after half an hour of this one. Peter Enckelman had done well to parry a shot by Leigh Griffiths, but the ball broke to Towell, whose shot spun in off the St Johnstone goalkeeper. It was Towell’s first goal for Hibs, unless you count the own goal he put in St Johnstone’s net at the same venue eight months ago.
A free header, fluffed by Martin Scott a couple of minutes later, suggested that Hibs’ new era might be off and running, but it didn’t work out that way. Not only did they let their opponents back into the game, they granted them a pair of preposterously easy goals just before half-time.
The first one did David Stephens’ prospects under Fenlon no good whatsoever. The big defender let it slip between his legs and allowed Fran Sandaza to hit the post from 12 yards. With the goalkeeper grounded, St Johnstone’s in-form striker netted the rebound.
Six minutes later, the home side had turned the game on its head, although the ease with which it was scored will not have gone unnoticed by their new leader. Haber, on as a substitute for Cillian Sheridan – who pulled up with a hamstring injury after only eight minutes – was hardly challenged as he rose at the back post to nod a Dave Mackay cross back across the goal-line.
On the touchline, Lomas was wearing the St Johnstone scarf that worked for him at Ibrox, but there was more than that to keep him warm. Two minutes after the interval, his team had scored their third, again after a mistake by Stephens. When he conceded a free-kick just outside the penalty area, Liam Craig stepped over the dead ball, allowing Mackay to curl it round the wall and in off the right-hand post.
As the weather deteriorated, so did the football. Hibs tried to respond, but they created little. Danny Galbraith, a second-half replacement for Martin Scott, set up a chance for Junior Agogo, another substitute, but his header flopped over the bar.
As Ivan Sproule admitted later, some of these players are not going to survive under the new regime.