Phil Brown’s departure from Hull City has sparked the predictable debates which centre around the same questions as usual. Was Brown given a fair crack of the whip by the returning chairman Adam Pearson? Do Hull have the personnel to pull clear of the relegation battle under a new manager? What are the Tigers’ realistic aspirations beyond merely existing as a Premier League club?
All are sensible topics of engagement. But perhaps the major issue here is that for eighteen months or so, something special was going on at a football club which had previously been in the shadows of a city which has had Rugby League in its blood for generations. All of that magic was wiped out in 15 minutes of madness on a winter’s afternoon in Manchester. An analysis of the last few days requires examination of the past to illustrate how something magical was created and then tragically destroyed. Brown came to a club that was struggling at the wrong end of the championship in October 2006 after the short and ill-fated tenure of Phil Parkinson, which had lasted only four months. Pearson admitted that the appointment of the ex-Colchester boss had been “a mistake” and was thus under pressure from supporters to deliver this time. The appointment of Brown was thus seen as a strange move, as the ex-Bolton player’s only foray into management had been a dismal six-month stint at Derby County. The immediate task was survival and it was achieved on the penultimate day of the season as they won 1-0 at Cardiff while Southend crashed 3-1 at home to already relegated Luton. That summer, the club was sold to a consortium headed by Paul Duffen who would strike up a rapport with his manager that inspired their next season’s work. Hard to beat all season, Hull made the play-off’s in third spot and won promotion thanks to Dean Windass’ stunning volley against Bristol City at Wembley.
On paper, Hull were not even promotion material, let alone a side that could realistically hope to compete in the choppy waters of the Premier League. But something else had happened that occasionally transpires at football clubs. The relationship between boardroom and the charismatic perma-tanned manager translated to players who had no fear of reputation and believed they could take on anyone. A 5-0 thrashing by Wigan was shrugged off as a bad day at the office as Newcastle, Arsenal and Tottenham all succumbed to Tiger power. Giovanni scored improbable goals in north London and the spirit in the team saw great backs-to-the-wall defending at the other end. After nine games, Hull had won six of them and were third in the table. Even when they lost at Manchester United, they had the cheek to score three in consolation. Results dipped slightly but they were still competing above themselves, until Hull’s players got the Christmas present from hell.
It is fair to say that Manchester City ran riot in that first half as even Robinho gathered enough interest to register twice. It is equally valid to argue that the second half was better but that is more by default than anything. What was manifestly unfair was the humiliation of players who had done so well up to that point. Suddenly, the ‘all in it together’ spirit vanished as the players realised this performance was for their manager’s benefit, not theirs. This was about him, not them. He was the star of the team, the one who the media should be focussed on. The chemistry that had made the whole greater than the sum of the parts dissolved from that day on. The synergy was broken, and it was so unnecessary. As Hull laboured to only one more win that season (a smash-and-grab last minute steal at Fulham) what was going on was painfully obvious to the eye. The players had not ‘turned’ on their manager – the fightback at Bolton that ultimately sealed survival would not have been possible if they had. It was just that a special bond had been broken, one that had taken 15 months to cultivate and 15 minutes to hack down. Only a shockingly lethargic Newcastle side kept them above the trap-door in the end.
Interestingly, Brown never apologised for that team-talk or admitted it was a mistake. Whether he genuinely believed he was right or stubborn pride got in the way, no admission would have helped. Terminal damage was done and one suspects deep down that he knew it. When he performed his awful rendition of ‘Sloop John B’ by the Beach Boys (to modified football lyrics) at the end of that season, he again faced the criticism that he had displayed narcissism when his players should have been basking in the adulation of their fans. One suspects that when he ‘crooned’ that “this is the greatest trip I’ve ever been on” it was in the knowledge that the trip he had enjoyed was over and would not be repeated. To be fair, many expected Hull to be dead by Christmas this season based on their end to the previous one. However, they have stayed above the bottom three for most of the season, largely because a host of new signings has made them a better team on paper. The best of the lot is not a new signing at all, but an injury-free Jimmy Bullard, who has the ball-playing talent to grace a side much higher up the table. Solid home form has been the difference between a shot at survival and being long gone already.
However, results away from the KC Stadium have been dreadful, culminating in a 5-1 loss at Everton that saw Bullard and Nick Barmby fighting in a public park the following day. Some managers would have seen this as a sign that their players cared, and had members of the Women’s Institute not been watching, Brown would not have had to apologise publicly on his players’ behalf. Paul Duffen would possibly have let it slide, but Pearson was less convinced by his manager, who had kept an uncharacteristically low profile this season as a result. That his departure follows a spirited but ultimately losing performance against Arsenal on Saturday indicates that Pearson had probably made his mind up after Bullard and Barmby’s public joust.
Brown’s CV contains a promotion to the Premier League, and so in the revolving door world of football management he will not be out of work for too long. He is bound to be in the frame for the next Championship job that comes up although an instant return to the top flight is unlikely. What is almost certain is this – Brown will never issue a team talk of any description on the pitch again.