Interview: Pat Fenlon, Hibernian manager

Hibs boss Pat Fenlon, who has plenty of ideas of how to implement a change in his side's fortunes. Photo: Ian Rutherford
Hibs boss Pat Fenlon, who has plenty of ideas of how to implement a change in his side's fortunes. Photo: Ian Rutherford
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New Hibs manager insists discipline is key and says ‘everything is in place’ for success, writes Aidan Smith

ANOTHER mid-point in a season, another trip out to East Mains, same sprinkling of snow on the fields, same two-defeats-and-it’ll-be-perilous scenario for Hibs – and another new manager. I’m waiting for Pat Fenlon in the same reception area where I waited for Colin Calderwood, then once through the security door, kick my heels some more in the same bare-walled conference room.

So I do what I always do in these situations: wander into the long hallway and kill time among the greats. It’s mostly players in this fine photo-gallery, hardly any managers. Jock Stein (first day, dead keen, by the old regd. office brass plaque) and Eddie Turnbull (triumphal wave from an open-top bus) and that’s pretty much your lot. They just don’t stick around anymore. So where is Hibs’ 31st manager, the fifth in four years? While we’re waiting, the Scotsman’s photographer gets me to stand where he’d like the new boss to pose so he can check the lighting and, slightly bored, I suggest crouching down because Fenlon is such a wee guy. Guess what? I’m doing my impression of the man who may be the most diminutive manager in the club’s history when Fenlon comes round the corner.

The impression is entirely sized-based because of course I don’t know him – none of us in Scotland does. And after our chat? Well, I can tell you this: Hibs are already giving him sleepless nights. Actually, what he says is that he doesn’t sleep well at the best of times and right now, even after one week and a measly 45 minutes of match action, there’s just too much going on in his head. Maybe he should watch an hour of undemanding telly before bed? “What are my favourite programmes? I don’t know if I have any,” he says, although just the other night he watched one horror DVD after another until he’d got through six of them. Actually, what he says is that he studied recordings of half a dozen Hibs games from the Calderwood era and very illuminating they were, too.

I wanted an hour with Fenlon, he suggested 20 minutes and in the end we talk for something in between. He doesn’t want to be unhelpful but he’s just so busy. “I’ve not had a minute, there’s a lot of work to be done and it’s been full-on.” Managers are always banging on about the graft that’s required, but in Fenlon’s case he surely means it. Some of the players – the strikers, including Leigh Griffiths and a flip-flopped Garry O’Connor – left around 1pm, their working day seemingly over.

But after Fenlon and I are done chatting and I’m back in the hall of fame, I hear his thick Irish brogue from behind a shut door and he appears to be shouting – although the photographer will tell me that for as long as that abortive Fir Park match lasted he was highly excitable. Late into the afternoon, the defence – Paul Hanlon and Ian Murray, sweating profusely – are still on the premises.

So, what’s he learned so far? Well, the abandonment was really disappointing but he still took a lot of positives from that “lost” win in Motherwell. “The attitude towards the game and the performance. We played some decent football, scored a good goal, held onto the ball and defended well – all plusses in areas where the team hadn’t been performing. But of course there was no reward. I got a few phonecalls from home winding me up about the floodlights failure along the lines of: ‘Bet you thought you’d left that kind of malarkey behind!’”

Fenlon, 42, has stepped up from a modest league but doesn’t seem to be awed. He’s appreciative of all that Hibs have going for them at Easter Road and East Mains but doesn’t rave about the infrastructure. This is good. Some recent signings have pitched up and appeared to quote from a prepared script about the handsome stands, training centre mod cons, all-round loveliness of Edinburgh – then played like they were on holiday.

“When you come to a club like Hibs I don’t think it does any harm at all to have been somewhere where these sorts of things aren’t the norm,” says Fenlon. Choosing his words carefully, as he does throughout, he says players can become “cocooned and assume and expect all football to be like this”. They should try the League of Ireland.

“The facilities there are very, very poor. At Bohemians previously we’d been able to use a university but when the club got into money problems we were reduced to training on the pitch where we played, setting up a basic gym in the stand.” The manager’s duties extended to sweeping out the dressing-room of jockstraps and betting slips and hustling in the business community for sponsorship. “After training today I instinctively went looking for the fork to replace the divots, because that’s what I would have done at Bohs. You couldn’t take anything for granted there because, compared with here, there really was nothing. I’m glad to have had that experience, though. It gives you a good appreciation of the jobs done by other guys at a big club and a sense of perspective.”

Fine. But I remember Calderwood and Derek Adams when the latter was No 2 telling me roughly similar things about players not stopping to contemplate their incredible good fortune on the short walk to their fancy cars. How’s Fenlon going to be different and what will be his footballing philosophy?

“The team have got to buy into the fact that they’re better than they think,” he says. Some might argue the opposite: that Hibs’ conceit of themselves – and this extends to supporters and their romantic notions – doesn’t chime with the harsh realities of the game and their place in it. But Fenlon, concerned with the immediate need for some wins, detects a lack of self-belief. “I tried to tell them last Friday that, albeit the game was cut short, they’d done a lot of what their critics said was beyond them. They’ve shown they can do it and, really, there’s no excuse now.”

What’s he like on discipline? “You have to have it at a football club. If you don’t you’ll have serious problems, possibly carnage.” A player’s place is the back pages of newspapers, he says, not those at the front chronicling off-the-field misdemeanours. In his own playing days, was he of impeccable behaviour? “I don’t think any footballer could claim that, but I never had any problems away from the game. I had some ability but had to work hard so I never took football for granted. Listen, I’ve heard things about certain guys here but I’ll make my own judgments on them, which is only fair, and treat them as individuals. But they’ll get to know the boundaries and how they’ll be expected to take personal responsibility. Once they adhere to the rules, we won’t have any problems. If this doesn’t happen we’ll need to act, and we will.”

Any manager, when arriving at a club with a pretty passing tradition but at that moment few points to show for it, can duck the flair issue in the short term. Calderwood did this, but even when relegation fears were averted, we got little sense of his style, other than the fact stylishness wasn’t uppermost in the grand plan. Fenlon is being similarly non-committal on the issue. Today he repeats a comment uttered on his first day, that football can be played “a lot of different ways” and in the here and now he’s not getting hung up about how the wins should come, just as long as they do.

Maybe we can learn more about him from those days in Ireland. They began in Dublin, “on an estate called Finglas that would have a tough reputation now but in those days suited us fine”. Hardly anyone could afford a car, so the street became the pitch, shopping trolleys for goals, 15-a-side, and titches like Fenlon had to assert themselves to stay in the game. In a city where gaelic football is king, attracting 80,000 crowds, he grew up supporting Shamrock Rovers. Oh, and also that mob from over the sea – Celtic – because of Kenny Dalglish – “what an absolutely fantastic footballer”.

When did he first become aware of Hibs? “I think that would be when Rangers came to Easter Road with all those English stars in Graeme Souness’s first game in charge and Hibs beat them [this was the opening days of the 1986/7 season]. The shockwaves from that, with Souness being sent off, travelled pretty far, didn’t they? We didn’t get to see many Scottish games on TV but they showed that one. I remember the atmosphere, truly electric, and boy would I love to see that recreated on Saturday. Easter Road’s a fine-looking stadium now but I do think it’s lost something from games I saw in the flesh a few years back when the old shed was there and the Hibs fans stood and sung. We still have terraces in Ireland but, of course, smaller crowds.”

More recently, he was aware of the highly promising young team assembled by Tony Mowbray and his admiration for it is perhaps a clue as to his vision for Hibs: “Bring on some young boys, find a few diamonds that haven’t had the chance to shine elsewhere, persuade some senior guys to buy into what you’re doing – that’s definitely a way to go.”

Fenlon himself started out as a striker and, aged 15, Chelsea invited him over for trials. “We played Spurs and I remember phoning my dad, who ran a contract cleaning business and was my biggest fan, to say we’d lost 10-1 and that I’d be straight home. But they gave me a contract. Well, I got our goal. I did a lot of growing up there. I was in with a big bunch of Scotsmen – Pat Nevin, David Speedie, Joe McLaughlin, Steve Clarke, Kevin McAllister, Les Fridge and Billy Dodds – and couldn’t quite break into the first team. But being in London on my own, travelling the length of the city from my digs to Stamford Bridge, built up my confidence and although I was disappointed that it ended after two and a bit years, it was a great learning experience.”

Back to Ireland and back into the midfield. “I scored more than 100 goals from there, both north and south.” Goal-grabbing midfielders are a dying breed and Easter Road has recently had more than its share of those who seem to think the opposition box is riddled with landmines or anthrax. “I know what you mean, but teams counteract them now. I’d been a striker, which helped. I wasn’t the quickest but I had decent energy. Plus, as a small fella, I just needed to be more aggressive than the next guy.”

His time in the north was with Linfield in staunchy Protestant south Belfast, and as their very first Dublin Catholic this would be another great learning experience.

“My dad had just died at the terribly young age of 50 and I guess I was ripe for an adventure. This was 1994, the Troubles were lingering, and Linfield were worried about me driving into Belfast because they thought there were still some lunatics about, so I got picked up in Dundalk and kind of smuggled in. But I never really had any bother from the fans who might have been unsure about me at first and did nickname me ‘Pat Fenian’. But then I scored against Cliftonville – funnily enough with a header, despite having forgotten my contact lenses. After that I was ‘Billy Fenlon’ – praise indeed. We went on to win four trophies that season and the only people who had issues with me were folk back in Dublin where I got the odd bit of abuse in the street.”

By now, I think, you’ll have an impression of a man who has fronted up bigger dilemmas than a group of footballers who’re under-performing on the pitch and over-performing in the nightclubs, and one who probably shouldn’t be messed with. He knows the SPL will throw up bigger challenges than the League of Ireland but is ready for them. And with candour he adds: “Everything is in place at Hibs to give me a chance to build a team the fans deserve. The way I look at it, if I don’t do well here then it’s nobody else’s fault.”

Fenlon continued to win things as a manager in Ireland, most notably with Shelbourne and Bohemians, but had been keen on a move for a while – and the reasons aren’t all to do with footballing ambition. While his wife Carol will remain in Dublin for now, to see their two children through this school year, he admits to having fallen out of love with his home city. “It’s changed drastically, not really for the better. Sure, it’s big and cosmopolitan, but not as safe as when I was growing up. With all of Ireland’s financial problems, it’s got harder and meaner because everyone’s struggling. You used to be able to leave a key in your door – not any more.”

The wee man has been squinting at his watch for a while, so I let him get back to work and narrowly avoid making the joke about Hibs being a home-from-home where the high turnover in managers means the entrance is left unlocked.