Ten years ago this week, Hull City parted company with Phil Brown. He was undoubtedly, to that point, the most successful manager in the club’s history.
Brown left an incredible legacy of unprecedented success but soured by his abrasive personality and a year and a bit of horrendous results. Results though, that came in the Premier League and when Brown took on the job in December 2006 - City couldn’t have been farther from the Premier League if they’d been playing on the moon.
Brown joined City initially as assistant manager to Phil Parkinson. He’d served, with distinction, in a similar position under Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers for years before his first foray into management at Derby County had gone to pot earlier in 2006.
Parkinson’s City side had won only four games in the Championship as he struggled to reproduce whatever had made him successful with Colchester United and his tenure ended after a 2-4 defeat at home to Southampton.
Brown inherited a decent squad featuring a lot of the players who’d served Peter Taylor with such distinction before his departure and players Parkinson had been allowed to bring in at some expense – funded in part by the sale of Leon Cort for a club record fee. Seven of the starting XI from Parkinson’s final game played in the play-off final in 2008 (spoiler alert!) Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Ashbee and Barmby started while Marney and Fagan came on as subs at Wembley.
The squad lacked know-how and a focal point up front with Jon Parkin struggling. Brown saw the problem and signed Ray Parlour and Dean Windass on loan. There were early signs of positive change despite a loss in his first game at Plymouth. City hammered Cardiff at home, picked up a creditable 0-0 at Leeds (when Michael Turner was restored to the side and looked every inch the player he would become) and an enjoyable 2-1 win at Hillsborough, through a Barmby brace, was one of three league wins on the bounce after Christmas.
It wasn’t all plain-sailing. The 0-3 defeat at Barnsley in mid-February was embarrassing and a couple of weeks later, it was topped by a 2-5 defeat at home to Ipswich during which Danny Coles had one of the worst games anyone has ever seen in black and amber. City were massively improved though in ability and attitude. That dreadful defeat at Oakwell, for instance, was followed by a gutsy and much deserved win over table-topping Birmingham at the KC. City picked up nine wins under Brown, the last being the 1-0 victory at Cardiff with Dean Windass’ goal securing Championship safety save for a massively unlikely swing in goal difference.
Brown came from a working class background in South Shields. He played most of his career at right-back serving unglamorous sides Hartlepool, Halifax, Bolton and Blackpool. With his perma-tan and “interesting” dress sense, he exuded confidence/arrogance, but underneath, he held values similar to most supporters, had pride in where he came from and where he lived and set about changing the mindset that we were little Hull - miles from anywhere and going nowhere.
In the summer of 2007, Adam Pearson, feeling he’d taken the club as far as he realistically could, sold up to Russell Bartlett and Paul Duffen. Duffen had many faults (most of them mathematical) but like Brown, he was determined to change the impression of the club. With the backing of the new owners, Brown made shrewd signings, taking Richard Garcia and Wayne Brown from Colchester and Henrik Pedersen after his release from Bolton. There were grumblings from supporters about the lack of investment given the signings were ones we could have made under Pearson. That started to change with the arrival of the supremely talented Nigerian superstar Jay Jay Okocha and the acquisition of Caleb Folan who became the club’s first million-pound signing from Wigan Athletic.
The signing of Okocha was particularly important in changing the perception and ambition of the club. He was long past his best, though still utterly brilliant, but his reputation was as important as his impact on the pitch, both to outsiders and the dressing room.
The start to the 2007/08 season was fairly unspectacular but it started to turn in October with the loan signing of little-known young striker Fraizer Campbell from Manchester United. Campbell scored twice on his home debut against Barnsley and barring a terrible few days in December when Preston and Southampton both stuffed us, City improved and started to ascend the league table. Performances were becoming consistent as the team assembled by Brown gelled and the attitude he fostered started to take hold in the squad.
Defeats became rare but plenty of draws meant City were never quite in the play-off mix but were on the cusp. On the 23rd February, almost a year to the day of that horrific defeat at Oakwell, City travelled to league leaders and Champions-elect West Brom. Magnificent goals by Campbell and Folan sealed a famous win that validated Brown’s belief in his side. He said afterwards "We've shown we can come to places like this and turn over a really good side.”
That match changed the course of City’s history - I’m absolutely sure. It’s still amongst the most enjoyable games we’ve ever seen outside the top-flight. Forgetting the play-offs, City won seven of their next ten games, the last a rearranged game at Barnsley that swung automatic promotion our way. In typical City fashion, that was then thrown away at Sheffield United when we succumbed to ten men (Stephen Quinn scored for United) and while it went down to the final day, we had to settle for the play-offs.
As a club, Hull City didn’t (and doesn’t) have a habit of winning big games. Brown’s brash, bubbling side were a different level altogether though and dismantled Watford over two-legs. Watford had been promotion certs when we went there in October. By mid-May, they weren’t on the same level as City and goals from Barmby and Windass, and a magnificent save by Myhill, secured a 2-0 win in the sunshine at Vicarage Road. A 4-1 win at a gleeful KC sealed the deal and a first ever trip to Wembley. You all know how it ended. Windass. 1-0. Promotion. Premier League. History.
Brown master-minded that promotion along with Brian Horton, whom he wisely brought back to Hull to serve as his number two, and Steve Parkin. He coached and improved the players he inherited who wanted to be part of it. He made intelligent signings. He built the spine of a team with leaders in Brown, Ashbee and Windass who had guile, bravery and class. He encouraged a team spirit and a winning mentality that is unmatched to this day.
City went into the Premier League on the crest of a wave. The place was buzzing. Brown was backed in signing players like Geovanni, George Boateng, Daniel Cousin and Marlon King who were a class above what we had. In fairness, he also signed Bernard Mendy, Peter Halmosi, Antony Gardner, Tony Warner, and numerous other signings who, with few exceptions, were only a drain on the wage bill. Where the money came from wasn’t particularly a worry as fans rode along on the wave. After the unprecedented success, there was a (naïve) trust that Duffen knew what he was doing and finances were far from anyone’s thoughts when Hull hosted its first ever top-flight game, and win, as City turned over Fulham 2-1 despite Seol’s opening goal. Geovanni and Folan wrote themselves into Hull City folklore that day.
The Tigers settled brilliantly into life in the Premier League with the sobering hammering by Wigan the only negative. We picked up creditable points against Blackburn and Everton while turning over Newcastle at St James Park 2-1 – our first away win. You’d have been forgiven for thinking that would be as good as it got but on 27th September, City went to Arsenal and won 2-1 again. Brown set up with a front three of King, Cousin and Geovanni at the Emirates, in what looked a suicidal decision but turned out to be a tactical masterstroke. Geovanni scored one of the best goals in our history to equalise Paul McShane’s own goal before Cousin flicked in a corner at the near-post and City fans experienced a joy unknown to man before or since. Whatever the combination of sheer ecstasy and disbelief equates to – that was the corner of the Emirates that Saturday night.
That was the first of four successive wins. City repeated the trick the following Sunday, winning at Arsenal’s great rivals Spurs thanks to another Geovanni wonder-goal before a Michael Turner header beat West Ham at the KC and we thrashed WBA away again. The Tigers went joint-top of the Premier League. For a bit anyway.
Things started to turn with a six-match winless run following that victory at the Hawthorns but it wasn’t all that gloomy. Chelsea outclassed us but we gave Man United a hell of a fright in a 3-4 defeat at Old Trafford. Defeat to a savvy Bolton side was sobering while draws with the newly-rich Man City, Portsmouth and Stoke were hard earned. A win over Middlesbrough followed and then City led 2-0 against Liverpool at Anfield before being pegged back for another very creditable draw.
The period from WBA away in February to that day at Anfield in December is as good as we will ever experience as City fans. It deserves to be remembered in all its glory. Phil Brown deserves to be revered for over-seeing that period of utter, utter joy.
It was all downhill from there, as all fans know. Brown and Duffen started to talk about City qualifying for Europe which made everyone’s skin crawl. Brown had changed the mindset of everyone involved with the club but that was a step too far. He enjoyed the limelight too much. The attention played to his brash character and he and his team forgot the principles behind their success. Sheer bloody-mindedness, incredibly hard work and togetherness.
You can point to the hammering at Manchester City on Boxing day and Brown’s ridiculous team talk on the pitch at half time as the turning point but it was always coming because the values had been lost. The group of players had been watered down with characters not fit to take the shirt off the ones who’d got us where we were. Brown signed Jimmy Bullard for £5m in January - huge money to Hull City – and he was immediately injured which didn’t help. He would have been earning more than anyone else in the squad and far more than the players who’d achieved promotion. It was another hammer-blow to the morale of the group.
City never really recovered. The unravelling of the financial situation due to Duffen’s inexperience with football accounting was the death knell. City survived in the Premier League by the skin of our teeth and due only to the greater incompetence of Newcastle United. We’d won one of twenty-two league games with a decent FA Cup run papering over some cracks.
Recruitment the following summer was haphazard. The financial problems forced the sale of Michael Turner, the heart of City’s defence, while “football decisions” apparently led to the sale of Sam Ricketts. The replacements were inadequate and save for the outstanding Stephen Hunt, all of the recruitment was a gamble. It didn’t pay off. City won two of the first ten league games. Adam Pearson returned to the club to replace Duffen whose financial “incompetence” (to avoid being litigious) had caught up with him. The rumour-mill suggested Burnley away would be Brown’s last game in charge. City suffered an unfair defeat at Turf Moor but perhaps the manner of the performance saved Brown when it really shouldn’t have.
A brief Jimmy Bullard inspired act of defiance that autumn brough two wins and two draws. But then Bullard was injured again at Villa Park and City’s season never recovered. In early February we beat Man City and drew with Chelsea. The last good memories under Brown. Four defeats later, he was done. And so were City. It was too little, too late and the inevitability of relegation scared off any potentially decent replacements. Brown maintains, years later, that he would have kept us up. Respectfully, he’s wrong. We were doomed and, while Duffen’s financial mismanagement is culpable, Brown is equally to blame.
Does the subsequent collapse overshadow Brown’ achievements? Absolutely not. The rise was the most enjoyable period in living memory and perhaps, objectively, in the club’s history. It certainly made history, but it did so unexpectedly given the situation Brown inherited from Phil Parkinson. No one in their right mind thought that Hull City could be a Premier League club.
Phil Brown did though. Every orange inch of him believed the impossible was possible.
Then he proved it.