December 9th, 2006. 3pm. Home Park, Plymouth. Phil Brown is about to take charge of his first game as Hull City’s manager, albeit a caretaker at this point. Over the next three years, three months and five days – about half as long as Terry Dolan’s reign as City’s manager – Hull City will narrowly survive relegation to League 1, sign one of the world’s most skilful midfielders, storm into the Championship play-offs, play at Wembley for the first time, win promotion to the top flight for the first time, win at White Hart Lane, at St James’ Park, at the Emirates, hold Liverpool and Chelsea to draws at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, lose by the odd goal in seven at Old Trafford, be ranked the seventh best team in the world in FIFA’s official rankings, sit in third place in the richest football league on the planet, survive a relegation that most people in football had seen as a mere formality, be patronised, mocked, lauded and hated by players, pundits and fans who wouldn’t have known what colours we played in through the many, many dark days of the 1990s.
Yet when Phil Brown was relieved of his duties on the 15th March, 2010, days after losing to a last-minute Arsenal goal despite playing half the game with 10 men, there were no protests in the streets of Hull. As many people seemed to believe that Brown had stayed in the job too long as thought the sacking to be harsh.
As rises and falls go, it’s about as dramatic as football is likely to throw up. But that is Brown all over. Dizzying highs and crashing lows. Fuck the five-year plan. Fuck the five-week plan. Just sit back and enjoy the rollercoaster ride. Such self-belief, such egotism, such arrogance is unlikely to bring you anything else. Brown had refused to be a slave to Hull City’s mediocre history and the relatively low levels of expectation that came with such underachievement. But when the wheels came off he was found badly lacking.
You shouldn’t need a season-by-season run-down of the Brown years. They should be etched into your brain like an ill-advised tattoo on a middle-aged woman’s right breast. The schizophrenic team that finished one place above the relegation places in the 2006/07 season, who were capable of losing miserably at Barnsley on the Wednesday and beating Birmingham on the Saturday, seemed to reflect the manager’s indecisiveness. It was hard to tell what Phil Brown stood for, what he did, at first. When he was offered the manager’s role on a long-term basis by new chairman Paul Duffen, City fans could barely register a ‘meh’. When we lost the first game of the 2007/08 season 3-2 at home to Plymouth, complete with Danny Coles preferred to Michael Turner, few were surprised. We’d been as anaemic in that game as we’d been the previous season in many games as we limped to survival.
There’s a key word in that previous sentence. Duffen. Adam Pearson, it is whispered, didn’t care much for Phil Brown. Brown’s vainglorious demeanour jarred with Adam’s man-of-the-people approach to all things football. However, in Paul Duffen, Brown found a kindred spirit. It was as if an internet dating agency had set them up after an in-depth personality test. The vanity, the ego, the drive: all perfectly matched. They didn’t belong at a team that was satisfied with 14th in the Championship, one place above Barnsley. They belonged somewhere more high profile. The Duffen-Brown marriage was to be all honeymoon and barely had time to reach the separate bedroom stage.
When Phil Brown concentrates on football management, and isn’t distracted by the bullshit that comes with it, he is outstanding at his job. City started the 2007/08 season 50-1 outsiders for the Championship title with most bookmakers. After taking one point from our first two games, those odds lengthened. But Brown had acquired a spine that was to take us beyond our wildest dreams. Unlike, say, Peter Taylor, Brown didn’t worry about big players, big egos. Hence first Windass and then Okocha were brought in. With Ash, Turner, Boaz and Wayne Brown, we were never going to concede many. With Campbell, Folan, Windass, Garcia and Barmby, we were always going to score a few. Mix these ingredients and add the self-belief that Brown could instill into a group of players, and you have a team capable of something special. And that’s what we got: the greatest 12 months in our history.
People will have different opinions on when they thought we could challenge for promotion in the 2007/08 season, but two games are often brought up, and both show Brown at his best. A 1-0 win at Turf Moor in November and a 2-1 win at West Brom in February were both statements of intent. Settle for a creditable point away from home? Nah. Both games were won with late winners that lesser managers wouldn’t have had the balls to dream of. One point gained was two points dropped. As we gathered momentum as 2008 progressed, Brown was growing in strength. All those years as a deputy to Big Sam, all that frustration at Derby, now he was showing everyone what he’d been capable of all along. The higher we got in the league, the more imposing a figure Brown became. He was telling anyone who’d listen that we were going up. If the media were weary of these claims and the fans a little cautious, crucially the players played like his self-belief had rubbed off on this (for the most part) collection of lower-league journeymen, thirtysomethings and honest toilers. A pre-play-off wobble at the end of the season suggested that we’d run out of steam. We hadn’t. Brown coped with the pressure of the play-offs masterfully, and after Watford were clinically swatted aside we faced the biggest day in our history. And we all know what happened next.
The period between May 24th, 2008, when we beat Bristol City, and December 13th, when we drew at Anfield, should have been the making of Phil Brown. Instead, this most glorious of periods broke him. After the Wembley hangovers vanished, we were confronted by pundit after pundit telling us that we were going to ‘do a Derby’, who had just been relegated from the Premiership having accrued a feeble 11 points. Who were we to argue? We – the fans and players – were for the most part venturing into the unknown. How far would our team spirit get us? How would the manager’s defiance and self-belief fare in the Premiership? Would we be relegated without humiliating ourselves? This seemed to be the best we could hope for.
Not for the first time, Phil Brown wasn’t going to be browbeaten by such insignificant things as history, expectation and common logic. We came, we saw, we went for the jugular. The front three of King, Cousin and Geovanni was a breath of fresh air in a Premiership that was accustomed to anyone but the top four opting for a safety-first 4-5-1 formation. It caught teams by surprise. Some would tell you that we rode our luck, but we didn’t, we earned it. Myhill, McShane, Dawson, (initially) Zayatte and (particularly) Turner were inspired at the back. Ash was at his glorious best snapping away at the heels of any attacking midfielder who came near him. And the rest of the team attacked. The manager stayed brave. A 5-0 home defeat by Wigan didn’t have Brown crawling into his shell, pressing all the panic buttons he could lay his hands on. He carried on regardless. Newcastle, Arsenal, Tottenham, West Brom, West Ham and Middlesbrough were left wondering what had hit them. Manchester United were to learn the hard way that even a three-goal cushion wasn’t enough to kill our spirit. We spent much of October and November in and around the Premiership’s European places. The world’s sporting media couldn’t get enough of us. We were English football’s feelgood story of the decade. And at the centre of it all was the miracle worker, the next England manager, the next Brian Clough…
What happened in the coming weeks will dominate discussions in pubs in Hull for decades to come. Who knows what might have happened if Phil Brown had been offered the then-vacant Sunderland job. Instead it was Sunderland who were to inflict the first blows in what was to become Phil Brown’s downfall. In a fairly even game at the KC, sloppy defending late on saw Sunderland canter to a 4-1 victory. Then came that Manchester City game and that half-time team talk. The significance of that team talk is often overplayed. Media reports seem to think the story goes: Hull City are a good Premiership team, Phil Brown gives a team talk on the pitch at half-time, Hull City are a poor Premiership team. This is, of course, bollocks. Just how much it affected the team we’ll never know, but the incident did raise a few questions about Phil Brown’s psyche.
Why did he feel the need to humiliate a team that had given so much over the past 12 months? Did he really think that the fans needed to see the players receive a bollocking for going 4-0 down to a team that included one player who cost more than every player in Hull City’s history combined? Was the whole thing really about getting back into a game that was already lost, or was it about keeping Phil Brown at the centre of attention? Was his God syndrome out of control? The team talk wasn’t the sole cause of our 2009 decline, but it was ill-advised and it did perhaps hint that Phil Brown was as focused on his own profile as he was on that of the team.
Up until this point, the media loved Phil Brown. Phil Brown loved Phil Brown. Phil Brown loved the media. Phil Brown loved seeing Phil Brown in the media. The relationship was now beginning to sour, however. Brown seemed incapable of turning down an opportunity to appear on any TV or radio programme, which is fine when you’re winning, but the fact that we were becoming embroiled in a relegation scrap was becoming more and more apparent. The more we lost and the more Brown riled the footballing establishment (particularly Arsene Wenger and Arsenal – the team most beloved in media circles), the more he became a figure to be derided, mocked, even hated. His dress sense, his facial hair, his bright orange skin, his bug eyes, all became sticks to beat Brown with, and when he ill-advisedly accused the vile Cesc Fabregas of spitting at Brian Horton, despite providing no evidence to back his claim, it was open season.
Within the space of a few months, Phil Brown had gone from being the best young manager in the country to being both a hate and a joke figure. And the pressure seemed to be telling. His team selections, once so brave and so bold, were over-cautious. In a must-win home game against fellow relegation candidates Blackburn, five midfielders were played with winger Richard Garcia playing up front on his own. When Brown took off our only potential creative spark in Geovanni (who, to be fair, had had a poor game) and a section of the KC made clear their anger, Brown’s pride was visibly hurt and in a post-match interview told Sky that he hoped Geovanni failed a drugs test. Everything screamed that Brown was losing it. The level of expectation that Brown had built – he spent five minutes at a meet-the-fans night in London berating a Hull City fan who had predicted in the Hull Daily Mail that we’d lose at the Emirates, because we should expect to win every game – seemed to be suffocating him. The team were in freefall and the manager was falling apart.
The rest of the season continued in a similar vein. Rumours of player bust-ups, of Brown’s poor conduct at racecourses around the country, of rampant favouritism, were abundant. Brown did little to assuage these fears as the team selections continued to lack consistency, common sense and ambition. Survival came despite winning one league game after November’s end – and we were very lucky to win that game at Fulham. In the final game of the season, at home to Manchester United’s reserves, when we needed a goal to all-but assure safety, Brown as good as admitted afterwards that he’d not realised what result we needed to stay up as the scores came in from around the country. We barely had a go at Manchester United that day, yet survived relegation thanks to Newcastle losing against Aston Villa. Again though, instead of the headlines being about Hull City’s incredible survival, about us gathering 25 or so more points than most ‘experts’ had predicted, the images that were flashed around the world were of a man about to turn 50 with a bad goatee singing Sloop John B to 25,000 football fans. Not for the first time the spotlight was on Phil Brown, not Hull City.
It was hard to know how to feel that summer. Few City fans wanted Brown fired, but it was hard to escape the fact that the team had gone into a meltdown that seemed to reflect the manager’s increasing erratic, inconsistent utterings in the press and on TV. But we’d stayed up. And that alone, regardless of the manner it was achieved, was incredible, something that hardly anyone in the football world had thought possible when Paul Duffen rang the Premiership bell before the first game of the season. It was hoped that a few weeks away from the spotlight topping up his, err… tan would help Brown relocate his marbles and refocus on what he was undoubtedly good at: being a football manager.
The close season wasn’t kind to Phil Brown. In some respects – such as his attempts to sign Fraizer Campbell – he was unlucky, but in others – the pointless chasing of Michael Owen and Alvaro Negrado, two players who were never going to come to Hull City – he was foolish, again chasing the headlines rather than doing what was right for the club. The only guaranteed class added to the squad came with the signing of Stephen Hunt. Still, at least we’d kept hold of prized asset Michael Turner…
The season didn’t start off too badly. A four-point return from four games that had seen us play Chelsea (and only lose to a last-minute goal) and Tottenham was encouraging. But then they went and did it. Michael Turner was sold. And it was done in the most unpalatable of manners for a fee well below his value to Hull City. Brown had made a few weird noises in the media about Turner a few weeks previous, almost offering him up for sale. It seemed as if the club wanted rid, and few would have begrudged our finest ever player the opportunity of a big-money move to Liverpool, who had made public their interest. However, when Turner did leave for Sunderland – for what turned out to be £4m – Brown came out with a load of guff about how Turner’s head had been turned, how it was impossible to keep him, and how the fee we’d got for him was “ridiculous”. The transfer fee – speculated in the press to be somewhere between £6m and £9m – was not disclosed, and it was never suggested by Brown or Duffen that the fees being mentioned were way off. Were we being deliberately misled? It felt that way, though how complicit in this Brown might have been is impossible to say. The fee was ‘ridiculous’, but not at the end of the scale that us fans had been expecting. Brown was fully complicit, however, in the decision to sign Ibrahima Sonko to fill the chasm left by Turner.
It was pretty much all downhill from there. The defence never recovered from the loss of Turner and we were to haemorrhage goals for the rest of the season, and in the process shatter the confidence of one of our greatest ever goalkeepers. The odd glimmer of light came in the early-season form of Geovanni, Stephen Hunt’s energy and undervalued skill, the briefest of flickers of what Jimmy Bullard was capable of, and the promise of Stephen Mouyokolo once he forced his way into the team, but on the whole it was a grim affair. The ousting of Duffen and the return of Adam Pearson in October seemed to put Phil Brown’s job under real threat for the first time since the beginning of the 2007/08 season, and had Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink not scored a last-minute winner against Stoke at the KC, there is every reason to suspect that Brown would have received his P45 much sooner. In truth, this would have been a little harsh. For all it was easy to build a football case against retaining Brown’s services at this point, his extra-special achievements with the club warranted some extra-special loyalty.
What was to prove to be little more than a death rattle in October and November, as Jimmy Bullard returned from injury, gave everyone hope. Indeed, when Bullard re-enacted the now infamous half-time team talk for his goal celebration when equalising with a penalty at Eastlands, it seemed that everything was back on track. The team were happy, they were comfortable enough to affectionately mock the manager, and Brown took it in very good spirits. But any team whose fortunes are reliant on Jimmy Bullard’s frayed knee ligaments is always going to be asking for trouble, and at Villa Park in early December trouble came our way and Bullard was yet again crocked. From that game onwards – a couple of decent results against Chelsea and Man City aside – we were consistently poor. As we hurtled towards relegation, Brown didn’t seem to have any clue as to how to arrest the decline. And as the full extent of Duffen’s financial fuckwittery became apparent, any hopes of bringing in any quality in the January transfer window diminished. Defeat followed defeat, but Brown’s demeanor remained unchanged. Never one to hide from the limelight/spotlight, the TV and radio appearances continued, his appearance as garish/attention-seeking as ever, his opinions still forthright, brash, arrogant and bizarre (such as his claims to have talked a woman out of committing suicide on the Humber Bridge – another incident for which he was mocked mercilessly) without a trace of self-doubt or self-awareness.
As relegation began to look more and more inevitable, something had to be done to pull off an unlikely survival. The squad wasn’t happy, with the players fighting in training sessions and the accusations of favouritism in the camp stronger than ever. It was suggested that City couldn’t afford to sack Brown, but on March 15, two days after nearly gaining an unlikely point against Arsenal, Brown was placed on gardening leave. The timing was to be something Brown would complain about in the future (along with criticising a player he owed so much to – Boaz Myhill) as he would claim that losing 2-1 to Arsenal with 10 men was a creditable performance. He was correct to some extent, but the Arsenal defeat wasn’t why he lost his job. Phil Brown was sacked, and ultimately Hull City were relegated, because we couldn’t beat the likes of Portsmouth, Blackburn, Wolves, West Ham and Birmingham at home. Brown had won six league games in his past 51 as manager. There must be very few managers in modern footballing history in England who have been afforded such levels of mediocrity. Replacing Brown was a necessity, a cruel one but a necessity nonetheless; appointing Iain Dowie to replace him was just plain cruel.
Brown was finally sacked in the close season, after City were relegated, possibly because his pay-off was smaller under such circumstances. Brown continued to appear on TV whenever anyone would have him, and indeed got all misty-eyed when the highlights of the Wembley game were replayed on Sky’s Goals on Sunday. The events were less than two years passed, but to Brown it must have seemed like a lifetime. His star had risen to incredible heights in that time, and then sunk to a low that had seemed unimaginable. There were times when, as a City fan, you just wanted to get hold of him, shake him, and scream “stay off the TV and radio and lower your fucking profile”. But it would have done no good. Brown’s strengths – his unshakeable self-belief, his drive, his certainty of his own rightness – are also his weaknesses. Without them, we’d never have got that 104-year-old top-flight monkey off our back.
After his firing from the Hull City job, Brown seemed to apply for any half-decent managerial post going in the UK. He is believed to have made the final two at Southampton, but lost out to Nigel Adkins, whose football CV, while impressive, doesn’t come close to Brown’s. Pleas to fill the vacant positions at Aberdeen, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough, among others, were seemingly not taken seriously by the clubs’ boards. You couldn’t help but wonder if the image that Brown has cultivated for himself in the media was counting against him. It would in some ways be understandable if a chairman viewed Brown as an unstable presence, too concerned about his own profile to concentrate fully on the fortunes of his team.
This is a crying shame. For all his faults, he deserved better than being reduced to begging for another crack at football management on any TV or radio show that would have him. Finally, Brown’s shameless pimping of himself paid off when he was appointed Darren Ferguson’s successor at Preston North End, a team marooned at the bottom of the Championship. Though ultimately Preston were to be relegated, they made a much better attempt at survival than any City fan would have imagined after viewing their capitulation against us at Deepdale that autumn. Brown, once he’d found his feet, instilled an all-too-familiar self-belief into a team that had been marooned at the bottom of the Championship (helped in no small part by the signing of Ian Ashbee), and had the season lasted a few weeks longer could well have pulled off an unlikely escape. It was heartening to see that when the baggage is stripped away, Phil Brown is still a very good football manager.
While the financial heemery of Duffen is something that we are still having to live with the effects of, Brown’s crimes – of which there were many – are much easier to forgive. He left us in a better position than he found us on the pitch, and led us to wildly dizzying heights that none of us would have believed were possible. You don’t know how lucky you were to have witnessed it. For that he deserves nothing but our eternal gratitude, a place among the very top of the Hull City list of legends, and free Guinness in the pubs of Hull and East Yorkshire for life. When he was good, he was as good as we’ve ever had, even if when he was bad he was horrid.