Stuart Bathgate: Cup key to Fenlon’s Hibs future

Hibs' season under Pat Fenlon has taken a nosedive since the turn of the year and could get worse yet. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Hibs' season under Pat Fenlon has taken a nosedive since the turn of the year and could get worse yet. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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NOW that Hibernian’s meek display against Celtic has confirmed their place in the bottom six, it is clear that the season could go in one of two very different directions for Pat Fenlon’s side.

If they win the Scottish Cup – and yes, we know, that is a gargantuan if, bigger perhaps than all the other ifs that have ever been called “a big if” – all will be forgiven by their supporters, including that slump from around the top of the table late last year to their present lowly position of ninth. But it is just as plausible that, instead of lifting the cup for the first time since 1902, they will emulate the misery of last season, and finish up as losing finalists in that competition and second bottom of the SPL.

Falkirk will have something to say about that on Saturday, of course, as they go about trying to deny Hibs the distinction of even getting to the final. So, with that Hampden semi still to play, there is a chance that Fenlon’s record this season will be even worse than last, at least in terms of how they rank in each competition.

If that happens, it is hard to see the manager being given much time next season to get the club back on the right track. Fenlon has already been fortunate in his employers’ reactions once, given he presided over one of the most humiliating afternoons in Hibs’ history at last year’s cup final. Another such episode would surely be too much for chairman Rod Petrie to tolerate.

The curious thing about last season, though, was that Hibs would have been better off losing in the semi-final to Aberdeen. Then, they could have celebrated escaping the threat of relegation – Fenlon’s primary task when he replaced Colin Calderwood in late 2011 – and been relatively happy with reaching the last four of the cup.

Instead, the Irishman insisted that the 5-1 loss to Hearts had reconfirmed his belief that major change was required at Easter Road, and he duly set about making that change in the summer. Early results this season were encouraging, and some of his recruits looked a cut above the duds he had inherited, and who, along with a few hastily hired hands, let him down so badly on 19 May.

But the rot set in around the turn of the year, and from being a team who could beat Celtic – as they did in their last game of 2012 – Hibs again look like a side who could lose to everyone. Once more, they have mastered the art of falling apart in a way few other clubs in Scotland can rival.

So was the progress in the autumn illusory? Were Hibs flattering to deceive, and did they only ever soar so high in the league because the whole SPL minus Celtic and Dundee have been much of a muchness this season?

Not entirely. Even if Hibs do end up second bottom just like last season, their early form at least ensured they avoided the prolonged dalliance with relegation that their supporters were still enduring this time last year. And, even when they are below their best, this team of Fenlon’s is still better than the collection that took the field last year. To cite just one statistical proof of that, they passed last season’s final points tally some time ago.

Nonetheless, so far in 2013 they have won just once in the SPL – at St Mirren in Paisley – and twice in the cup. Only one of those three victories – their 4-2 win in the sixth round at Kilmarnock – was a resounding one, and even then it was aided by some dreadful defending by the home team.

What is more, those recruits who looked good for the first month or two in the team have had a tendency to fall away badly. In the cases of Gary Deegan and Tim Clancy, lengthy spells on the sidelines because of injury have had something to do with that, but there are others who have no such excuse.

More recent signings have added little to the side. Scott Robertson has perhaps had no more than a couple of impressive outings; Matt Done perhaps a couple less. Kevin Thomson is a cut above most of his team-mates, and is playing for nothing in any case; but he will be away in the summer.

Fenlon’s squad is still crying out for an attacking central midfielder – a position occupied at times by Paul Cairney, who more usually plays wide left – and for a second striker who can be relied upon to complement Leigh Griffiths. By the summer, with Griffiths due back at Wolves, they may be crying out for two strikers.

Griffiths’ quality may yet get Fenlon out of this present scrape, and a win against Falkirk would at least buy time. But, a year and a half into the manager’s reign, the jury is still out. That’s a long time for deliberations to continue without a definitive verdict.