Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hibs: Pat Fenlon's failings go deeper than Malmö mauling

Hibs home shirt 1980s Umbro, the Scottish Football Blog
A big crowd, a night where the history of Hibs was so emotionally celebrated and...an absolute, cover your eyes, when it will stop tanking.

Another big game ends with another apology from the manager and much discussion over Pat Fenlon's future as manager. Record defeats in Europe - for Hibs, for any Scottish club - can make a man's employment status a topic of debate.

And Thursday's demolition against Malmö was historically bad. Hibs have had a tendency to crumble or to fail to show up in big games. But that weakness still didn't prepare many of us for the orgy of ineptitude we endured.

Malmö's manager said his team had been "lucky." The opening period of the game certainly didn't suggest the Swedes had come to wreak historical havoc. Their good fortune was to come up against a team powerless to stop them doing exactly that.

It's true that Malmö are already in the swing of their domestic league. True also that they're in no way a bad side. But they filled their boots because Hibs looked like a side who had never met rather than a side who had already enjoyed a substantial pre-season together. Malmö are a good side but they'll only win 7-0 if they come up against a very, very poor side.

Once again the support answered the call when Fenlon led Hibs to a big game. How have they been repaid?

  • That cup final hammering against Hearts
  • A 3-0 defeat to Celtic in a Scottish Cup final, almost lauded in some quarters because his team didn't collapse as they had done the year before
  • A big home support expecting Hibs to fight the good fight against Malmö, a support that ended up watching the heaviest ever European defeat suffered by any Scottish team

Even his biggest fans must ask how exactly Fenlon prepares his players before they face these challenges.

He lost those three games by an aggregate score of 15-1.

He did manage to overcome Dunfermline in a relegation battle at Easter Road in 2012. And Hibs came back when Falkirk - a side 25 points short of SPL promotion - went 3-0 ahead and threatened to do "a Malmö" in last season's Scottish Cup semi final.

But the first half of that Falkirk match raised even more questions about how Fenlon prepares his sides for these games. At the very least one gets the impression that his team talks fall short of Churchillian and teeter on the edge of Blimpian.

Does Fenlon deserve another shot at a domestic campaign based on the first 20 months or so of his reign?

An online poll of fans - much quoted in the weekend press but lacking the numbers to be truly representative - had 68 percent of supporters (at the time of writing) deciding Fenlon had to go.

My anecdotal evidence - even more scientifically flimsy - suggests he's doing well to have over 30 percent of fans backing him.

(Full disclosure: a Twitter correspondent who I've never met called me a wanker for questioning Fenlon. So the love is out there for Pat, there are supporters swimming against the tide of popular opinion ready to succinctly articulate their point of view.)

The pro-Fenlon argument suggests that calls for his head are a knee-jerk reaction to Thursday night. A freak result suffered by an unfinished team in a game that came too early.

(I've seen it called a meaningless game - Hibs and Scottish football might have slipped but if history means anything then no European game at Easter Road should ever be called meaningless.)

Are the anti-Fenlon mob guilty of the predictable whining of fans licking their Malmö shaped wounds?

Or is it the final verdict of the people who watch Fenlon's Hibs most closely each week?

His league performance since taking the job - and I'm about to present a barrage of stats cobbled together on the back of a fag packet - looks to me like being 60 games played with 18 games won.

A win percentage that we could generously round up to 30 percent.

How does that compare to his most immediate - and there's been a few - predecessors?

My SPL calculations give:

  • Colin Calderwood a win percentage of 25 percent
  • John Hughes a win percentage of 36 percent
  • Mixu Paatelainen a win percentage of 32 percent
  • John Collins a win percentage of 38 percent

Fenlon undoubtedly inherited a mess from Calderwood. His five SPL wins over 22 games in 2011/12 saved Hibs from relegation when there were times - before and very often after he took over - when they flirted with being caught by a poor Dunfermline side.

But three of his league wins came in the last three games of last season when Hibs had nothing but seventh place to play for in a season when the Rangers sized ructions of the previous summer left a very different SPL landscape.

Seventh place did represent progress on the previous season's eleventh place - but it most certainly wasn't the progress the fans had hoped for.

Those three end of season, seventh spot snatching wins also give a certain sheen to Fenlon's calendar year results in 2013.

The idea that he inherited a side surely ended when this year's January transfer window closed.

Building a football team from a low starting point isn't easy. But three transfer windows offers a decent opportunity to mould a new side.

"It's Calderwood's fault!"

Well, no. Since Fenlon's third transfer window in the SPL closed I'd contend that it isn't Calderwood's fault anymore.

And since then Hibs have played 13 league games and won four. Without winning against a team that finished in the top six.

Fenlon's 2013 win percentage is, of course, increased by the Scottish Cup run. But even including the road to Hampden not since the 1-0 win over Celtic on 29th December have Hibs beaten a team that finished in the SPL's top six.

And what of that cup form?

Fenlon's consecutive final appearances make him - thanks to the perverse relationship they share with the old trophy - Hibs' most successful manager in the competition for ninety years.

Ten games played, eight won. A record that can't be knocked - well, alright, it can: none of those wins came against teams that went on to finish in the top six of the SPL.

But given how poorly his team has often played in the league, two cup finals can be seen as Fenlon overachieving.

This Hibs fan was certainly caught up in the moment on the road to each Hampden final.

Then I crashed down to earth when his teams didn't perform. It's fair to say - and it often is by his fans - that Fenlon has twice been 90 minutes away from Easter Road immortality with those two cup finals.

Which is true. Unfortunately on both occasions his side looked decades away from actually winning the cup.

Does reaching those finals make him a better manager than his immediate predecessors?

I'm not sure it does.

Maybe he's the luckiest unlucky manager Hibs have ever had: two unlikely semi final wins delivering him the permanent blot of a famous win for Hearts and a Swedish reversal of the most cherished Hibs result.

Stripping away those results - although football is an emotional game, there are some results that many fans find so unpalatable that apologies from the manager simply don't cut it - still doesn't seem to give much proof of real progress under Fenlon.

With a year left on his contract he needed a good start to this season. Malmö was the worst possible start - yet again he finds himself plotting progress on the back of a high profile thumping with many fans disillusioned before the domestic campaign has yet started.

"But we can't go on sacking managers."

I've said that myself before, probably on this blog more than once. But it’s hardly the strongest reason to persevere.

An excuse that suggests all hope is lost.

An excuse that suggests the real crisis of confidence lies not with whichever Tom, Dick or Harry is picking the team but with the men that gave him the job in the first place.

And maybe that gets to the heart of the matter.

Pat Fenlon isn't a good manager of Hibs. He's had his share of good fortune and he's had his share of bad fortune. But he's never consistently raised Hibs to much more than a whimper.

He could be sacked tomorrow or he could last the season. But his departure - yet another departure - needs to be part of an overhaul in attitude and governance at Hibs.

What exactly do the board want for Hibs? And when and if they set those targets how do they ensure the right people are in place throughout the club to achieve them?

Balancing the books is an admirable aim but a football club needs a football vision as well. It's been too long since Hibs have articulated anything close to that. It's also self evident - as the crowd that turned out for the Malmö game proves - that achieving more footballing success will actually help the accounts.

It's sensible that any manager of Hibs will need to work within certain financial constraints. But the first step for the board is ensuring they appoint someone who can actually do that.

His performance to date suggests Pat Fenlon can't pull off that trick consistently, either in the day to day drudgery of the league or in the big one off games that can make legends of managers.

Hibs look to have recruited quite well this summer - there are some areas where they still look short and there will be big pressure on James Collins to replace the goals of Leigh Griffiths - but Pat Fenlon's record doesn't give me much hope that he can use those players effectively.

I hope I'm wrong because Rod Petrie doesn't yet look persuaded to remove him and frankly I can do without watching another season of huffing, puffing crapness. But my confidence in Fenlon as Lazarus has evaporated.

And that represents a big gamble for the cautious Petrie. Another season of dithering inconsistency risks something worse than the ire of the fans: apathy is likely to have a more detrimental impact on the club's accounts than taking a hit on yet another unconvincing manager.

(Note: post edited to amend Colin Calderwood's league win percentage.)