When the after-effects of Hull City’s top-tier spendthrift era took hold, there were a few innocent victims in it all. We sold Michael Turner, our finest footballer, because the club was suddenly desperate for cash. Boaz Myhill left, in tears, for peanuts because every last offer for our players had to be accepted. And, when Phil Brown was put on gardening leave, his assistant Brian Horton also left the club. This has left a slightly sour taste with City fans to this day, but is there now a chance to remedy it?
Horton, thanks to his management of the club in the 80s and his return two decades later under Brown, is a Hull City legend twice over. Though he was Brown’s batman throughout the glory years and the fall from grace, as an old-school leader he never seemed to get involved in the politics or look to promote his own image. His ego was, and always has been, pretty much invisible. Throughout a distinguished managerial career, during which period he became one of the handful of gaffers to pass 1,000 matches in charge, he never set out to enhance his public persona. The only time he took flak was when Francis Lee took over as owner of Manchester City and the press immediately suggested Horton’s time in charge – the biggest job he would ever have – was now in peril as Lee would want his own appointment. Horton’s response was to ignore the catcalling and keep going, and then refuse to trust journalists after he was eventually given the boot. The club he left in a reasonable position was relegated under his successor, Alan Ball. Vindication, but in Horton’s case, just sorrow. Jobs further down the food chain followed – an ex-Manchester City boss in the top flight doesn’t later become manager of Port Vale or Macclesfield if he thinks he’s above them. He was about working with footballers and, admirably, nothing else.
His return to City as Brown’s number two was hailed unanimously. An avuncular but still tough presence, he could double up as saint or devil depending on Brown’s stance with a player, and had the backing of the supporters that saw some delightful football under his stewardship in the mid 1980s; his first managerial role which many still feel was ended impetuously. Brown had hired a Hull City man. Promotion to the Premier League followed and Brown was happy to credit him his share of the plaudits, as were we all.
As Brown’s antics and image in the top flight made him a comical figure, Horton remained resolute and stoic. He rarely gave interviews – Brown’s now legendary willingness to appear on screen and air made it largely unnecessary – and he got on with his job. Brown fell out with an ample number of players but Horton appeared not to do so. If ever there was a time when an experienced assistant needed to change his younger, progressive boss’s mind, it was when Brown needed to be persuaded to restore players on his naughty step. You can’t imagine Brown turning to George Boateng or Craig Fagan and offering to bury the hatchet without someone with real gravitas in his earhole telling him it was necessary. That was Horton’s job.
And so Horton also left the Tigers when Brown got banished to his allotment in March 2010. Though there was disappointment for Brown, the overriding emotions at his exit were surprise (as we’d just out-fought Arsenal with ten men) and fear (that his exit was little to do with football matches, and damaging revelations were on the way). But once it filtered through that Horton had gone too, it was just genuine sadness. No-one won. They lost their jobs, we were looking at losing our status and, more worryingly, our solvency, and on top of all that, Iain Dowie came in.
It took a while for negotiations over Brown’s final settlement to be agreed, and afterwards his battered image meant he was overlooked for some new jobs. Horton, just in his 60s, presumably still wanted to work. It’s not known whether he was deliberately waiting for Brown to secure a job and then go in with him, but nonetheless that’s what happened when Brown was given the job of managing Preston North End at the beginning of this year and took Horton along.
Now the two are out of work again – unfairly, it seems, but then again Peter Ridsdale is the football equivalent of Harriet Harman, someone whose ambition far outweighs their ability – and maybe there’s a new gig waiting for Brown. Hartlepool United have a vacancy, for example, and they are Brown’s old club, on his patch, they’re in the same division as Preston, and the Northern Echo have already mooted the idea. Wherever Brown goes next, you’d assume that Horton will still go with him. Unless, that is, Horton is offered the opportunity to be someone else’s assistant. Nick Barmby’s, in fact.
It makes so much sense. Barmby needs an old hand alongside him, someone who knows the club, the supporters and the gaffer himself. The club have publicly said they want to create a Hull-centric coaching set-up. Moreover, although the squad was conclusively overhauled after relegation, there are enough players in there with whom Horton has a working history – Andy Dawson, Richard Garcia, Paul McShane, Tom Cairney, Kevin Kilbane, plus others – and so he’d be hitting the ground running.
The question mark is how Horton is perceived by the club. Brown was sacked by Adam Pearson, which one assumes means Horton was sacked by him too. Their subsequent relationship is, presumably, a little strained, but while it’s far too romantic to suggest Brown could ever work with Pearson again (and, even if they were bezzie mates, I don’t think any of us could handle the soap opera that comes with Brown again), it somehow feels like Horton’s standing within the walls of the KC is salvageable. Barmby is a well-known admirer of Horton and has known him since he was a child, and needs the support of someone exactly like him.
If it is Pearson who blocks any prospect of Horton’s return, there is a form of consolation available. It would provide proof that Pearson still wields power and influence over the club, after many concerns expressed by supporters that he is being severely marginalised by the Allam regime. But it’s a hollow consolation in some ways; we don’t live in an ideal world, but if we did then Barmby would be banging down doors with bigger name-badges on than his demanding that Horton be approached, and bygones would be bygones between those that need them. Cast politics aside City, the man is decent, likeable, available and, more than anything else, he is ideal.