Stuart Bathgate: Suggestion of anti-Hibs agenda lacks credibility

PAT Fenlon said something strange last week. So strange, in fact, that it made you wonder if he has had time to lift his eyes and look at the wider world since arriving as Hibernian manager last November.

It was not his statement last Monday that the League Cup was “a trophy we think we can win”. Hibs’ defeat at Queen of the South the following night provoked a few chuckles at that assertion, but it would surely have raised more eyebrows if Fenlon had claimed his club had no chance. And anyway, it’s only five years since John Collins’ Hibs side did win it.

Instead, what was really curious was Fenlon’s suggestion, made two days after the loss at Palmerston, that there was some sort of anti-Hibs agenda in parts of Scottish football. “I’m amazed by the extent to which, if we have a bad result, it becomes the end of the world,” he said. “It happens at other clubs, yet not as much is ever made of that. I watched Celtic last year and Hearts lost 5-0, yet nothing was said about that match.”

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The notion that Hearts get an easy ride from the media or from the rest of the game in Scotland is unlikely to receive much backing from fans of the Tynecastle club, but the real point about this example is that the match in question did not matter. Celtic were champions, Hearts had nothing to fight for in the league, and there was a Scottish Cup final coming up six days later.

But let’s leave Hearts out of it, and look at Fenlon’s wider case about attitudes towards his club. “I think in general when we have a bad result everybody wants to jump on it,” he said. “I don’t know why this is the case. I haven’t been here long enough to figure it out.

“Maybe people like to give big teams a kicking when they’re down – if that is what it is about, then so be it, but I don’t really agree with that. Whatever it is, we need to change how people view us. It can be annoying because, for certain sections, there seems to be enjoyment in seeing this football club slip up.”

True, when Hibs are favourites in a cup tie against a team from a lower division, there is a general tendency to back the underdogs – but not because they are playing Hibs. The same preference is evident when it comes to other clubs, other sports, other kinds of contest altogether.

But, when it comes to more even contests, or when Hibs themselves are the underdogs, there is a massive amount of sympathy towards the 
Easter Road club. Take that Scottish Cup final back in May. What percentage of neutrals wanted Hibs to win – eighty per cent, ninety per cent, more? This reporter, for one, cannot recall meeting a single person, other than Hearts supporters, who wanted to see Paulo Sergio’s team lift the trophy.

Simple curiosity value played a part in that. No-one alive has seen Hibs win the Scottish Cup, so everyone knew they would be witnessing history if it was James McPake, not Marius Zaliukas, who got his hands on the trophy at the end. But it went beyond that. Because, rightly or wrongly, many neutrals have long regarded Hibs in a romantic light as upholders of the beautiful game. This notion dates back at least to Eddie Turnbull’s richly gifted team of the Seventies, and has survived to this day despite the lack of evidence for it, with Tony Mowbray’s side having been the only one in recent years to play consistently attractive football.

No matter their shortcomings on the pitch, Hibs are seen as bohemian, rebellious, anti-establishment. In reality, like every other professional football club, they are run as a business, but the romantic image lives on. If everyone nominated their second favourite club, Hibs would be pretty close to the top of the table, perhaps challenged only by the fondness in the west for Partick Thistle.

Fenlon’s failure to notice that affection may be a sign of the size of the task he has taken on. He has perhaps been under more pressure and greater public scrutiny over the past ten months than at any other time in his career, and has misread that scrutiny as hostility. If so, it’s a mistake which is not going to make his job any easier.