Brian Horton’s return after 19 years and more than 1,000 matches to the club where he started his managerial career has been generally been warmly welcomed by fans of Hull City, even though there couldn’t be more contrasts with the club he left and the one he rejoined. DMT mulls over an intriguing return…
The affable but iron-willed Horton’s decision to take up an offer from Phil Brown as his assistant represents an acceptance by the boss and also chairman Adam Pearson that a spot of ruthlessness was absent in the running of the team last season.
City survived the drop thanks to an unlikely but deserved penultimate day win at Cardiff while Leeds United, the Tigers’ nearest rivals both positionally and emotionally, were combusting via a late goal conceded to Ipswich and a later spoiling tactic via a pitch invasion assuring the large Leeds-hating fraternity in football that grace and dignity would not accompany the latest failure and fall at Elland Road. But for all the joy in survival and the demise of the white-shirted figures of derision along the M62, every City supporter recognised that something was fundamentally amiss with the team, and not just in tactical form. And now on the horizon appears one of the more successful Tigers bosses of modern times to clench his fists and sort that out.
Horton is too gifted, astute and – in Brown’s own words – experienced to be merely afforded the status as some kind of bailiff when the tempers and egos in a renegade squad threaten to destruct. A fine motivator, a respected spotter of playing attributes and in possession of a mind as fair as it is bloody, he will make a significant contribution to the Brown masterplan of resetting City on to their upward journey which the maligned Peter Taylor had, with equal measures of brains, tedium and stubbornness, carefully routed prior to his departure for Crystal Palace.
A Brown/Horton combination really is a mouth-watering prospect, even though Horton isn’t used to life as a second-in-command, having only briefly done the job once before (at Oxford, where he was soon promoted after Mark Lawrenson quit over the Maxwellian secondment of Dean Saunders to Derby). Pearson’s exciting and expensive appointment last summer of Phil Parkinson as Taylor’s replacement had, according to vehement local rumour, produced mutiny among some senior pros, with certain individuals believed to be in direct confrontation with the manager on a daily basis and plotting his downfall. Even after Brown’s arrival weeks into the season as first team coach and the subtle changes evident through his methods, rarely did it look like Parkinson would win anyone over in the seats or the dressing room.
When Pearson looked at the December fixtures from the bottom of the table and decided he’d seen enough, the players clamoured via the Hull Daily Mail – never knowingly slow to enjoy a crisis at the KC – to get “Browny” appointed while Parkinson was still vacating his parking space. The problem within a harmlessly unoriginal nickname was clear straightaway – as a first team coach, he’d been allowed to pal up with the players in a way Parkinson felt he either shouldn’t or couldn’t. Suddenly, he had to be their boss. Yet he remained “Browny” to all in his charge, and the fans sensed that each time performances dropped, this lack of detachment between master and servant formed part of the problem.
City survived, in the end. Phenomenal wins over Cardiff (twice), Birmingham and Preston were mirrored by catastrophic losses against Barnsley (where practically every individual, from manager, through captain and players, were booed), Leicester, Norwich and – most crushingly – Leeds, and the obvious lack of will among the lion’s share of the squad during these games again lent credence to the idea that nobody was issuing the warnings, the scoldings, the inspiration through equal shares of fear and encouragement. Lobbing teacups isn’t a trait schooled or recommended via the UEFA badges, but players still need reminding of their role and responsibility as much as they need cajoling and wet-nursing through their harder days. Brown had nobody obvious in place to do that.
Once his own job had been secured, Brown brought in Horton for that bit of experience to the obvious delight of Pearson, who had chatted to Horton informally during the pressure period surrounding Parkinson. There was little suggestion Horton would get the top job again, although with hindsight there’d have been few better available, despite his sacking by Macclesfield earlier in the campaign which, like all his previous departures (he was sacked by five of his seven clubs; Oxford and Brighton were the exceptions), did nothing detrimental to his reputation. In 1984 he had pulled up on Boothferry Road from Luton, bearded and determined, as a player-manager and took on a climbing, improving team, sorting out a promotion to the second flight in his first year, and bringing in some superb players, including future international squad men Garry Parker and Richard Jobson, to worshipping audiences. He came within a couple of places of getting that elusive promotion to the biggest stage of them all, a statistic which still hasn’t been put to bed and, along with that one about the pools coupon, keeps Hull City in football quizzes for all eternity.
Horton adored Hull. His kids were born there and he was utterly shellshocked when he was dismissed in April 1988 after a crazy run of ten matches without a win. The calendar year had started with City in the top ten and looking healthy and, perhaps mindful of this after his knee-jerk response to a 4-1 home loss to Swindon, immediately the chairman, Don Robinson, tried to reverse the decision, but principle took hold of Horton and he refused to return. His departure was felt for years, as it heralded the start of City’s decade-long slump via the tepidity of Eddie Gray, the profligacy and belligerence of Stan Ternent, the Teflon-esque incompetence of the super-hated Terry Dolan and the awfulness of Mark Hateley. The last two of these eras make every City fan shudder even now. Only when the cleansing task undertaken by Warren Joyce in the infamous Great Escape season of 1999 managed to rekindle some of the goodwill towards a City manager last given to Horton.
The “never go back” argument may surface, but Horton hasn’t returned as manager, so there is a get-out clause therein. He has nothing to answer for and certainly nothing to prove, but maybe as assistant manager, talent-spotter and chief throat squeezer, he can co-finish the job he should have been allowed to finish as the top man a generation ago, irrespective of whether he gets the credit. This is the man to tell Ian Ashbee where his captaincy begins and ends, and maybe even when he is no longer regarded as first-choice midfielder. Assuming it isn’t a thankless task (judging by the evidence since January), he is certainly well-placed to rediscover the best in Jon Parkin, a man whose form under Horton’s guidance prompted the raiding of City’s savings to the tune of £150,000 in the first place, and who has subsequently transmogrified from a burly, heroic talisman into a wasteful, arrogant gutbucket with no pride or professionalism left.
As Parkin has suitors with more money than sense, he may well leave before Horton has the chance to put an arm round his shoulder (assuming he can reach that far) but if Stoke and Cardiff choose not to invest their money in flawed flab, then there is at least a fighting chance that he may rise from the ocean bed once again in a Tigers shirt. Brown, who all but washed his hands of Parkin last season and said as much, seems prepared to dirty them again with his new assistant’s prompting.
Meanwhile, Brown seems to have prioritised investing in second-string players from the top two divisions in order to strengthen a wounded but breathing squad. This is fine if they’re older than teenaged and suitably talented (John Welsh, Dean Marney); or if they’re blessed with heritage without being too old (let’s set Dean Windass apart as a unique exception here, but Seth Johnson certainly fits the bill if his orthopaedic surgeon is content), but the untried and untested who have Premiership academy pedigree and no more (such as Lee Peltier) are of little use.
Far better to invest in someone skilled and naturally hungry from the lower divisions, the same divisions Horton knows like the back of the Boothferry Park dugout. Despite many blinkered viewpoints that Leagues One and Two are exclusively flooded with graceless mudkickers who pass frequently to their own corner flags, these players are out there. Taylor used his and Colin Murphy’s extensive, nurtured catalogues to dig up such players and no doubt try for more, and Horton can do likewise while puncturing the pompous and power-crazed egos already in his employ. And there will be a young, keen and matey manager with a deeper tan sitting by his side who will be very grateful to him for it.