Dancing at the Crossroads
So, as Pat Fenlon leaves and Terry Butcher is welcomed to Easter Rd, where stand the Hibs now?
Well, first to assess Pat’s reign at Hibernian FC. Success or failure?
Always a tricky question that but there are many who would claim quite simply that he failed and it was time for him to go. I might agree with the second part of that assessment, but not the first.
It’s clear that Fenlon inherited a situation which was almost terminal for the club. Squad morale and discipline was as poor as it could be, there was no direction and little structure at the club. There was a squad of players with no concern for Hibernian, of limited talent, and with even less application to their career. The infrastructure to correct all these failings had also been allowed to atrophy.
Fenlon’s job was to address all of that, whilst, firstly preventing the financially disastrous slide into relegation, and then moving the club on to top 4 or 5 respectability. It was a big ask and it was also a task which was 80% or more to be accomplished out of sight of the fans.
His next task then was to translate a new solidity in the club to results in the league.
Arguably he achieved all of this except for the results bit. It’s fair enough to say that the results are what really count for a football club, but, as always, it’s much more complex than that. I don’t think anyone claims that you judge a school, for instance, solely by its exam results. Any sensible assessment would look at ethos, organization and concern for the individual – all elements which are difficult to explain or identify, especially when compared to the bare statistics of results. That’s not to say a school’s aim is not to achieve good results to its pupils, of course it is, but the way in which it achieves those results is just as important.
For many fans, only the points total counts. A common thread on the message boards is: “I don’t care what he does off the pitch as long as he scores goals” – as if a sportsman’s lifestyle has no connection with his on field prowess. There is a culture in Scotland which prizes maverick, if fleeting and unrealized, talent above the rigours of hard work and dedication. Jim Baxter will always be more admired than Lionel Messi by some people. It explains much of the malaise in our sports achievements over the past decades since the rest of the world wised up to the need for a professional approach.
Pat Fenlon’s problem was that his best work was done out of sight. He made the club ‘respectable’, if you like, brought it players whose attitude was professional, ensured that the organization behind the scenes was as it should be for a club of Hibs’ magnitude
Even the media, who, for whatever reason, often seem to glory in Hibs’ lack of achievement, admit that the talent and approach of the squad he has assembled is far superior to that which he inherited. However, consistency was missing on the pitch and the big games never seemed to go the right way. As the comic Tony Hancock wrote before his own departure from the scene: “It all seemed to go wrong too many times.”
Fenlon’s style of play has come in for criticism, and you would have to admit that at times it was eye bleedingly slow and cautious. I think he wanted Hibs to be hard to beat and I think he also felt he played a system suited to the players at his disposal. The multitude of similarly defensive central midfielders didn’t help his case but then, unlike some fans, I don’t claim to know why a pacey winger or a creative midfielder couldn’t be signed. Everyone, including Pat, knew that was what was needed, but it’s not Football Manager, the players you want or need can’t always be signed. Had Alex Harris not been injured, had Wolves not appointed a new manager who fancied trying Leigh Griffiths, had Tim Clancy’s injury not proved so obdurate, things may have been different. But as Franck Sauzee used to say, zat’s football.
True to his word, Pat left when he felt he wasn’t being successful with the next part of his plan – whatever the reasons for that. The word in Dublin is also that he had had enough of the bad mouthing and negativity. He’d achieved most of what he set out to do with Hibs, and with a business and family in Dublin, and a good chance of a top job in the League of Ireland before too long, he didn’t need the hassle.
Did that make him soft?
I don’t think so. Most folk in Ireland who have known him through his career as player and manager would tell you that Nutsy was always a hard wee man. I’m not sure though that Inchicore intensity translated too well to the peculiar world of Scottish football. Certainly, and oddly, given Hibs’ origins, he was faced with an unusually high level of disdain because of where he had come from, despite his accomplishments in the League of Ireland, and in Europe.
He was honest, hard working, and open, but I’m not sure a lot of the support had appreciation for those traits. He happened to be in a position that, when the negativity of the fans became overwhelming, he could walk away. Certainly it must have been frustrating to hear manager after manager telling his players: “Stifle Hibs for the first fifteen minutes and we’ll win, because the fans will get on their backs.” As I listen to the abuse from the fans week after week, it always amazes me that they think that somehow that will improve the situation. I liked Fenlon as a guy and I loved Hibs having a manager who didn’t make me cringe whenever he opened his mouth. I think he achieved all he could and left at the right time.
I suppose it depends why you go to the games. This Saturday will mark 50 years to the day since I started attending football every other weekend or even more regularly. That doesn’t make me an expert, but it gives me a frighteningly long perspective.
I have learned that no team can win all the time, that performances will frequently disappoint, and that players and managers will often make decisions which are completely baffling to the support. The press are fickle and not to be trusted a lot of the time, and television money has made the game a bit of a joke. I’ve also learned that walking into a football stadium is one of the best feelings you can experience, and I’ve loved being a live football supporter all my life. When the result is right and the performance dazzling, it’s brilliant – but when it’s defeat and gloom and rainy and cold – it’s still memories and mates and the thrill of the live experience and routine.
And as for Hibs?
Well – as a third generation supporter, they are quite simply my team. Not going to watch and support Hibs never enters my head. I’m lucky to be able to afford the time and money to follow them week in, week out, but I acknowledge if you have to make sacrifices to afford to go to the game, poor results and unsatisfying style must be very annoying. All I can say is that I want Hibs to be successful – but winning and playing with style – though desirable, are not conditions for my support, because I am a Hibee. What else would I do, where would I go?
I perceive them as a big club – partly because of their position relative to others in Scotland, mostly because of their history, heritage and tradition. The ‘first British club in Europe does not lose that position, no matter what follows. But in terms of sustained success?
Football tells us that no teams have any right to be constantly in the sun. Notts County, Wolves, Sheffield Wednesday, Dundee and Dunfermline all had periods when they dazzled, but have spent longer in the doldrums. Chelsea went 50 years or so without winning anything; Tottenham are a pale shadow of the famous Double winning side. Success ebbs and flows. Few teams win anything, even fewer can expect consistent success. In England, currently, outside of three or four teams, all the other Premiership sides are playing to get into Europe or avoid relegation, a league championship isn’t going to happen for them.
If we are honest, Hibs have been ‘underachievers’ always. Even the Famous Five side failed to reach all the heights it might have done, and all agree Turnbull’s Tornadoes should have achieved more. The second half of Mowbray’s tenure was poor and Collins was gone before he had started. Teams with a reputation for flair – often do just that – they flare up and then subside – and there is more darkness than light.
The stats tell us that Hibs historically are a middling side – with occasional flashes of success. That’s not to say it always has to be so, but it is the story so far.
Can Terry Butcher change that?
Well – change leading to success is often incremental and I think it’s worth looking at Fenlon and Butcher in that respect. Fenlon has laid the groundwork, Tel may well be the man who can build on that. He has said that he believes he has the ‘blocks in place’ upon which he can build. It’s also interesting that no matter how many players and managers praise Hibs excellent training centre, there are still fans who perceive it as ‘wasted money’. There is a big gap between fans’ perceptions and the realities of running a football club, just like there is a big gap between having everything in place and attaining success on the pitch. It is surely the unknown, the unpredictable and the element of luck which makes sport so endlessly fascinating?
So, there are no guarantees with any managerial appointment, just as there is no equation necessarily between the amount of money spent and the fulfillment of ambitions. All a club can do is to act sensibly, within its means, and with a view to ambition. When the chemistry is right – and that often happens by accident, success will follow
Terry Butcher seems to me to be a shrewd guy, who has learned from mistakes and carries a certain aura with him. Maybe that aura, added to the tactical nowse of Maurice Malpas and the talent spotting of Steve Marsella, will be what finally enables Hibs’ boat to come in. It will be fun finding out!
When the Hibs were founded in 1875, the major entertainment for the players’ countrymen back home in Ireland would have been dancing at the crossroads.
It seems to me that Hibernian have been dancing at the crossroads for far too long. It’s time to hit the road running and head in a positive direction.
Go on yersel, Tel!