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The Fenlon Complex

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Derby day has arrived for the first time this season and perhaps rather surprisingly, given that it takes place in a lower tier of Scottish football for the first time in the fixture’s history. Hearts, more or less doomed for relegation the moment those 15 points were deducted last year, were always expecting to be here. Their neighbours across the city, however, would not have anticipated another derby for at least a year – that is, until they conspired to snatch relegation from the jaws of Premier League safety in May.

As a result, the build-up to this particular derby has been arguably more interesting than it usually is. Both teams are looking to compete with Rangers for a return to the top flight at the first time of asking and have entrusted new head coaches to carry out the task. While it is still early in their tenures, Robbie Neilson and Alan Stubbs have both been credited in recent weeks with instilling a new playing philosophy at their respective teams, providing supporters with renewed optimism ahead of the Championship season.

However, while there are similarities between their emphases on attractive, passing football, the pre-match musings of both men were poles apart. It was after reading the comments of Stubbs, in particular, that I was reminded of Paulo Sergio’s words prior to a certain Scottish Cup final in 2012.

“IF YOU BELIEVE THAT LOSING PUTS THE PRESSURE ONTO THE OTHER THAT WINS MORE TIMES, OKAY, YOU KEEP LOSING. KEEP LOSING AND PUT THE PRESSURE ONTO US.”

While Robbie Neilson was measured and, at times, complimentary of what his opposite number has done so far across the city, focusing on the players Stubbs has brought in and the playing style he has implemented, Stubbs seemed more focused on talking Hearts down, claiming that the weight of expectation in the supporter ranks at Tynecastle, coupled with the home advantage, places the onus and pressure to win firmly on Hearts.

Given Hearts’ fruitful record against Hibs in recent seasons, Stubbs would be correct in his view that the Tynecastle faithful expects a result. However, implying that this creates undue pressure for the Hearts team, as regular favourites, is something Paulo Sergio laughed off back in 2012 when it was suggested by his counterpart at the time, Pat Fenlon.

Fenlon’s comments, very similar to those made by Stubbs this week, came prior to the Scottish Cup Final, at the end of a season in which Hearts won every league derby. We all know how that final unfolded. Unperturbed, Stubbs claimed:

“I’m not looking into Hearts beating Rangers too much. Over 90 minutes we created more chances against Rangers than Hearts…I don’t think there was an awful lot in the game.”

Stubbs may find solace in adopting this mentality but, regardless of how many chances Hibs created in comparison to Hearts, the fact of the matter is they lost to a Rangers side that was there for the taking. Nobody looks back on a result at the end of the season and romanticises over how many chances were created if the game was lost. By contrast, Hearts dug deep for a late win that looked to have been snatched from them in potentially morale-sapping fashion.

This insistence on comparing his own team to Hearts continued with Stubbs’ claims that media negativity towards his team had left him wondering if Hibs were the only team to have been relegated last season, evoking the sort of inferiority complex that reared its head during Fenlon’s tenure.

Fenlon’s reign at Hibs became defined by the Edinburgh derby and it was clear that his poor record in the fixture rankled with the Irishman. He was Wile E Coyote and Heart of Midlothian Football Club was the Road Runner, and that inferiority complex became particularly evident in the season after the Scottish Cup Final.

From the moment Leigh Griffiths’ free-kick clinched a rare Hibs victory at Tynecastle towards the end of the 2012/13 season – Fenlon’s second derby victory from the five meetings that season – those of the green and white persuasion, fans and players alike, began speaking of a shift in power. The tables had seemingly turned and Hibs were now set to become the dominant force in Edinburgh, especially given Hearts depleted resources. One season and four Hearts victories later, here we are.

Of course, there is every chance that Alan Stubbs will bring his Hibernian team to Gorgie on Sunday and leave with a result. However, it is telling that, despite a ball having yet been kicked, Stubbs already appears to have fallen into the same trap as his predecessors. While Robbie Neilson continues about his business as though tomorrow were any ordinary game, Stubbs would be well-advised to take note of Sergio’s words and focus more on his own team.

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