It really was ten years ago this week that Phil Brown took charge of Hull City for the first time. This was simply an opportunity we could not turn down to review and reassess a phenomenal period for the club, for both good and bad reasons. Fitting the brief, we’ve told his whole association with City in five chronological chunks…
1. Saving City while condemning Leeds
When Brown took over the City job, we were in a wall of trouble. The squad was decent but lacked direction. New recruits were struggling to bed in, establishment figures were being shunted out and the tactics under Phil Parkinson – able, amiable but naive – were easily sliced apart by opponents. Brown, brought in as a first team coach, was an older and more worldly-wise figure, but when Adam Pearson asked him to save the club from the drop upon his elevation in December 2006, it seemed a tall order.
After all, he was still something of an unknown quantity. His only previous foray into a top job had been a brutal spell at Derby which had already prompted him to be written off as someone of the calibre to run a footballing project from its very top. Other names were mentioned but Brown had a chance and he clearly intended to take it. There were scrapes and near-misses, not to mention some especially rancid games, but he made significant enough improvements and changes to get City into the last fortnight of the season with an opportunity to survive. He had restored Nick Barmby and Stuart Elliott to the squad and, with a combination of nerve, shrewdness and an eye on his personal standing, re-signed a 37 year old Dean Windass on loan from Bradford City.
The final away game of the season was not promising. Cardiff had been in the top half all campaign. City had to go there in the knowledge that a win could keep them up, providing Ipswich did them a favour at none other than Elland Road at the same time. With Southend and Luton already gone, just one place remained.
Windass scored the only goal at Ninian Park, Ipswich got a 2-2 draw at Leeds and City were hailed by sport and mankind as a whole as saviours of all that was good and right, beyond even mere football. With a game to spare (which City lost) the herculean task assigned to the smiling man with the tan and the soft South Shields vowels had been completed. He couldn’t now not get the job full time.
2. Promotion to the Premier League
For all that, there were plenty who didn’t want Brown. Gratitude for not exiting the Championship in the wrong direction only went so far. They pointed to his inexperience, his tactical limitations, his inconsistency, his clichés, his rictus grin. All sorts of reasons, fair and less fair, were offered. But only Adam Pearson’s opinion counted, or so we thought.
Pearson had promised Brown the job in the event of survival but clearly that also depended on his own continued involvement with the club. In the summer of 2007 he sold up to businessman Russell Bartlett, who installed the media-friendly Paul Duffen as his face and voice. Duffen and Brown hit it off straightaway, Brown got his mandate, astutely recruited ex-City boss Brian Horton as his assistant, and a two year plan to reach the Premier League was drawn up. It took only a year.
It is still remarkable that in one and a half seasons at the club, Brown prevented what had looked a predictable, horrific relegation and then followed it up without a pause for breath with a history-making promotion to the top tier, giving City fans the kind of emotional upheaval and utter joy that none thought would ever come. And he did it with a marvellous tight-knit squad, talented and committed, while making a handful of adroit purchases and injecting occasional showbiz into it to make the wider world notice.
In truth, it could have been an automatic promotion. With a month to go it was two from three to go up automatically, with West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City – contrasting in style, identical in effectiveness – keeping City just about at bay, with the occasional opportunity to topple one or both going astray, although City’s earlier win at the Hawthorns, a result gleefully unanticipated by the national media, proved to both Brown and the Tiger Nation that we were ultimately good enough to go on and do this. In the end, City finished a clear third, destroyed Watford in the play-off semis and then went to Wembley, for the first time ever, to face their destiny.
Windass scored the “wonderful, magical goal” (as Sky’s Bill Leslie had it) but the team performance was dogged and inspiring, especially as Bristol City, a most useful side who had taken four points from us during the regular season, laid siege to the City goal in the second half. This was where the commitment and togetherness displayed all season by City was required more than ever, for one final time, and isolated acts of immense defending by Michael Turner and Sam Ricketts, as well as a promotion-clinching catch of a high ball by Boaz Myhill, completed the job. For a second season in a row, Brown had done exactly what he had expected to do.
3. Premier League ubiquity
Oh, 2008/09. What an emotional maelstrom you were. What headlines you created, of all kinds, in the name of Hull City AFC. And there, causing or responding to them all, was Phil Brown.
We had some star players in our first Premier League season. Geovanni was an impish master of controlling a football and making it dance for him. Michael Turner nullified top flight attackers as if he’d been doing it forever. Ian Ashbee led, fought, inspired and put our lives in his hands. Bernard Mendy and Kamil Zayatte were both bonkers in the nut and sometimes brilliant. And yet nobody seemed to emerge from it as big a star, a more important figure, than the manager.
Brown loved the adulation. And while City were flan-flinging in the early weeks of the season – wins at Newcastle, Arsenal and Tottenham made us the most talked-about club on earth, in all probability – the adulation was deserved. But from December onwards, when it started to level out and then go horrendously wrong, he still wanted the adulation.
What he expected when he sat the whole team down on the park at half time at Manchester City on Boxing Day 2008 and gave his team talk publicly is anyone’s guess – and City fans still say it wasn’t a big deal – but he wasn’t exactly praised for it. In defending his actions, Brown was able to stay in the headlines as his team sank through to mid-table, and that wasn’t right.
Between December and March, City didn’t win any of 13 Premier League games. The earth-stopping successes at Arsenal and Tottenham before the clocks had gone back seemed a lifetime ago. In the end, the 1-0 win at Fulham in March thanks to an injury time winner defined the season more than any of those victories on lighter days. City were now in the midst of a famine, but still Brown didn’t seem fully focussed on the job. He didn’t back off from the spotlight, rumours of unrest within the squad spread, the expensive signing of Jimmy Bullard failed spectacularly as a man with a known knee problem promptly suffered a serious knee injury and the manager was ridiculed on exiting the FA Cup at Arsenal in the quarter finals after some odd comments about Cesc Fàbregas’ clothing. That win at Fulham was the only one City achieved in 23 Premier League matches. In the end it was Newcastle’s ineptitude as much as City’s that kept us up on the last day and, by now, nobody outside of the Circle wanted us in the Premier League.
The celebration on the final whistle was natural but most City fans just felt sheer relief. In taking the microphone at the Circle moments after a game which City had lost to a bunch of Manchester United teenagers (supposedly because the authorities thought Brown could persuade fans to leave the pitch), Brown misjudged the fans and the whole situation entirely. The achievement had become about him and him alone; the players hugged each other knowing they’d dodged a bullet; the fans hugged each other knowing they weren’t going to be a laughing stock any more, only to then see the gaffer give us a new reason to be sneered at. As he tunelessly misquoted the City version of Sloop John B and the cameras crowded round him, his ego peaked. That City had stayed up felt more despite him than because of him, but his ultra-close relationship with Duffen, who blubbed on the pitch and hugged his manager during a post-match TV interview, meant it was inevitable Brown would be around for another go in August. We could only hope someone would tell him over the summer to wind his neck in and remember what a fine football coach and manager he was, and being such should be his priority.
4. Gardening leave
The 2009/10 season was horrible. It genuinely didn’t seem to have a redeeming feature. No away wins, scraps between players near the Humber Bridge, the heartbreaking sale of Michael Turner for a (later to be revealed) pittance, the season-long injury absence of Ian Ashbee, and the threat of near bankruptcy. In the middle of all this was Phil Brown, who lost his security blanket when Bartlett, a silent owner responsible for the reckless financial outlays, recruited Adam Pearson to look at the books. What the man who had built the modern, responsible, abstemious Hull City found was so horrible that he feared for the future of the club, even short-term. Duffen was removed from his position and Pearson had the chance to get shut of Brown too, around the Hallowe’en weekend of a controversial defeat at Burnley when City only had two wins on the board. He should have done it. He didn’t.
The factions in the squad were now pronounced – dedicated professionals like Nick Barmby, Kevin Kilbane (a man who halved his wages voluntarily), Andy Dawson, George Boateng and Richard Garcia on one side; less responsible wildcards led by Bullard on the other, with the greedy perma-crocked midfielder also having an unsavoury influence on youngsters like Tom Cairney, which felt unforgivable.
A last minute defeat to Arsenal at the Circle finally instilled action from Pearson, and Brown was placed on gardening leave while negotiations for the terms of his permanent exit were thrashed out. Because City had come close to snaffling a heroic point with ten men against the Gunners, the reaction to Brown’s departure on a national scale patently failed to see a bigger picture, labelling it harsh. City fans, while sad at the demise of Brown, were little short of relieved. Suddenly, thanks to the terms of his gardening leave, the manager who had achieved so much personally and professionally was silenced and invisible. The clean-up operation began.
Iain Dowie was installed in a ludicrously titled job, won just once, and City went down gracelessly, without even a single away win. Football seemed to think they had been cleansed by Brown’s dismissal and City’s demotion, but City fans just craved the chance to reboot their club, get away from all the recrimination and madness, settle back in the Championship and start again. It had been a hell of a ride but everyone wanted now desperately to get off.
Brown was formally let go in the summer of 2010 and Nigel Pearson was appointed. As he started assessing the playing situation, introducing austerity measures within the club not seen since liquidators transfer-listed the whole squad in 1982, Brown looked around for work. His name was sullied around the Circle, at one glance a crazy development when considering the joy of his first two years (exactly) in charge, but by another token not surprising when seeing the state of the club, financially and emotionally.
Brown did media work to keep his name alive, applied for a few jobs, got close to one or two, and eventually took over at Preston North End. In January 2011, he persuaded Ian Ashbee to sever his nine year association with City and go across the Pennines, and not long afterwards both were back at the Circle. Their reception was muted, though Brown was less well received than the former skipper, even though both had ended their spells with City peculiarly and unsatisfactorily. City won the game 1-0, with only one player in the starting XI – Andy Dawson – who had played under Brown.
Preston didn’t work out for either. Ashbee retired and Brown again went back to the studio. He was a good pundit and an excellent radio summariser, then got a job at Southend United. When they were then paired with City in the fourth round of the FA Cup in 2014, it allowed Brown another opportunity to heal the pain.
And this time, it worked. Almost four years had passed, City had recovered and were back in the Premier League, and Brown gave a series of interviews which made plain his love for the club and the appreciation he had for what it had done for him. City fans responded with some well-aimed, affectionate chants his way during the match, which ended in a 2-0 win as the Tigers maintained a run that would culminate in a first ever FA Cup final.
Some would have Phil Brown back today; one suspects that Brown, who is proving an effective manager on the Essex coast, would walk back to the Circle any day if asked, irrespective of where City are at the time. Perhaps that boat has sailed now. But, ten years on from his appointment, we can again say that he was a brilliant manager and clearly a very good man. But for the recent achievements of Steve Bruce, there is an argument for calling him our greatest ever manager, just for the long-term dreams of the Tiger Nation that he made come true. Before him, we had nothing next to our badge at all. No top tier, no Wembley trips, no international name.
And however difficult some of his era in charge was for all involved, life with him as manager was never dull, for any of us. And if had been, who’s to say he would have been so successful so early on? Phil Brown had self-belief and coaching acumen, and it was both of those things that got us where we had always wanted to be. Ten years on, it’s easy to appreciate that all over again, and we salute the man unreservedly.
Phil Brown, Hull City manager, 9th December 2006 – 13th March 2010*:
Played 157 games, won 52, drew 40, lost 65, in all competitions. Achieved promotion as winners of the Championship play-offs in 2007/08.
*Brown remained Hull City manager until June 2010 but was on gardening leave from 13th March until the end of his tenure was confirmed.