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Marcotti's Musings

Fenlon a missed opportunity for Dundee United

When Craig Levein indicated that he wanted to quit Dundee United to take on the Scotland job, the club compiled a shortlist of potential replacements with the name of Pat Fenlon high on that list.

While the majority of the club's fans had every reason to ask "Pat who?", the insular world of Irish domestic football was bracing itself to cope with the inevitable departure of its greatest ever manager.

But the switch fell through last week as the Tangerines could not agree a compensation package with Fenlon's current employers, Bohemians, to release him from his contract. Despite offering him the top job, they simply were not prepared to pay more than their proposed £100,000 fee to get him.

The relutance of the Dundee United board to negotiate with the League of Ireland champions could come back to haunt them as they have missed out on appointing one of the brightest young managers in the game.

For those still wondering "who the hell is Pat Fenlon?", here is an insight into the man that should have been Levein's successor.

Once a superb League of Ireland player, the Dubliner slipped into management with relative ease as he led Shelbourne to three titles before spending five months at Derry City in a largely forgettable period.

It didn't take long for him to get his reputation back on track as he took charge of the Republic of Ireland Under-23s for an International Trophy Tournament before he linked up with Bohemians, where he sharpened his skills and won even more silverware.

As Scottish journalists quizzed every Irish contact they had to find out any additional information about the 40-year-old over the past week, it was Inverness CT striker Richie Foran who supplied the most apt depiction of the man who could have been Dundee United's 13th manager.

"He's a winner. Simple as that. The first word that comes to mind is winner," said Foran. "He's huge in Ireland. I know he isn't big in Scotland and England but he's huge in Ireland and people talk as if he's going to go on in the future to manage the Irish national side."

Perhaps talk of succeeding Giovanni Trapattoni is a bit premature, but Foran, who was at Shelbourne when Fenlon was, is spot on with his observation of the popular manager as it is his track record of success that eventually swayed the Tangerines board put him top of their wish list.

Five league titles in seven seasons says it all. Although if you dive a little deeper you will learn how he almost took Shels to the group stages of the UEFA Champions League, how he won back-to-back titles with two different clubs and how he has won four trophies in the past two seasons.

The best managers tend to possess a certain aura that captivates those who share their company with their every word preyed upon. Fenlon falls into that category even though his managerial career to date has only existed in Ireland.

When he addresses his squad, entertains a group of supporters or lectures a huddle of journalists he is genuine, intelligent and insightful. Yet he rarely gives much away. He knows when to open up and when to hold back.

Ask any player who has worked under him and they will preach about his tough training regimes, meticulous preparation for games, eye for spotting strengths and weaknesses in players as well as his ability to instil confidence in his team.

Above all though, the main characteristic that has defined his managerial career thus far has been the high expectations that he sets for himself, his staff and his players. He may know that perfection is impossible to accomplish, but he certainly aims for the next best thing.

"Pat is a special manager. It is no surprise that other clubs are interested in him. You just have to look at what he has achieved in two years at Bohemians to understand why he is so highly rated," said Gerry Conway, Bohemians' honorary secretary. "Not many managers have achieved the kind of success that he has. Players respond to him and want to play for him and that is a sure sign that he knows what he is doing."

Everything suggested that he was going to be the new messiah at Tannadice, but the row over compensation ended his dream of landing a top job in the SPL. However, as Fenlon weighed up the potential move in his head he would have been reminded of how Stephen Kenny's Scottish adventure all went wrong when he left Derry City for Dunfermline Athletic in 2006.

Despite leading the Pars to the Scottish Cup final, where they eventually lost 1-0 to Celtic, there was little he could do to save the club from relegation. Kenny was in charge for 51 games, during which time he oversaw just 16 wins and had to deal with 24 defeats and 11 draws. Those cruel statistics ultimately led to him being sacked in December 2007.

The experience that Fenlon has acquired, especially the short-lived spell at Derry, would surely have helped him to avoid some of the pitfalls that befell Kenny. Add to that the fact that he would have been joining a stronger club in a better league position with a decent squad and it suggests that he could have succeeded in the top tier of Scottish football.

Only time will tell if Dundee United's failure to prise Fenlon away from Ireland will be seen as a missed opportunity. But for Bohemians, they have kept hold of a top-class manager who is expected to lead them to even more glory this season.

Perhaps other clubs will come calling over the coming months, but they will have to learn from the mistakes made by Dundee United and Peterborough United and realise that this isn't just an ordinary manager.

Gareth Maher covers Irish football for ESPN Soccernet. Check out his website to read more of his writing.


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