Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Phil Brown: Hull City's Mission Impossible

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 (na├»ve) 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.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Hull City: If I hadn’t seen such riches…

…I could live with being poor. 

The brilliant, if over-quoted, lyric from James’ “Sit Down” over the years applies to Hull City’s past, present and future as much as anyone. Conventional wisdom suggests that the good times are over. And the future is bleak.

For nearly twenty years, we’ve had it good. Since Adam Pearson picked the locks of Boothferry Park in 2001 we have seen five promotions, three to the Premier League, two at Wembley, we’ve played in the FA Cup Final, qualified for Europe and seen the best players we will ever see pull on black and amber shirts. We’ve gone from bust to boom to bust to boom to gloom and doom to now – whatever now is.

Pearson rescued a “sleeping” not-quite-giant in Division Three in 2001. After two false starts under managers Brian Little and Jan Molby, we moved from Boothferry Park to the shining beacon of the KC Stadium where Peter Taylor assembled a squad of club legends who dragged the club out of the bottom tier and straight through the newly forms League One. We brought Nick bloody Barmby home from exile in Leeds and marched straight into the Championship. Honestly, I never dreamed it would get better than that.

Taylor moved on and after a brief struggle under Phil Parkinson, Pearson appointed Phil Brown as manager and sold the club to Russell Bartlett and Paul Duffen to take us to the next level. Dean Windass came home too while Brown brought and Jay Jay Okocha (which still makes no sense written down) and Caleb Folan became the club’s first million pound signing. From nowhere in the spring of 2008, his side just missed out on automatic promotion to the Championship before winning that play-off final at Wembley. The greatest day in the club’s history.

We started brilliantly in the Premier league and we’re still banging on about those wins at Arsenal, Spurs and Newcastle twelve years later. We didn’t even win at Old Trafford or Anfield but the performances filled us with pride. The joy didn’t last as we all know. Brown and Duffen got ideas above their station, the cost of the signings made to compete in the Premier League bled the club dry and neither Duffen nor Bartlett owned a calculator or a copy of Microsoft Excel. We survived, just, but were relegated the following season with Brown having departed to be replaced by… Iain Dowie. The club returned to the Championship in turmoil. We were haemorrhaging money, selling players to survive and the future was as bleak then as it is now.

Unlike now though, knights in shining hieroglyphics arrived to save us – the Allam family. The family, originally from Egypt, own local business Allam Marine and live in Kirkella. They were local-foreign owners saving the club for the sake of the community. Allegedly. For a couple of years, things went pretty well. They rid the club of some crippling costs and personalities and allowed Nigel Pearson to spend money in building a competitive side in a tough league. When Nigel Pearson left, they appointed Nick Barmby as manager, to their chagrin as it turned out, before sacking him unceremoniously at the end of the season. That was the first warning sign that not all would be rosy under Allam ownership but they appointed Steve Bruce as his replacement and backed him in the transfer market – appeasing most City fans.

Bruce oversaw a glorious four-year period taking us up from the Championship, automatically, at the first time of asking, kept us in the Premier League and through that FA Cup Final appearance in a spirited but losing effort to Arsenal, qualified for the Europa League. We were relegated from the top flight when we really shouldn’t have been close but bounced back via another play-off final win against Sheffield Wednesday.

Almost all the success under Bruce played out against a backdrop of owner/fan division. The controversial attempt to change the club’s name to “Hull Tigers” and subsequent backlash and campaign to keep it caused a rift that still exists seven years on. Despite the ongoing battle, the Allams still backed Bruce, and he was able to succeed, in a fashion, on the pitch. Off it, the Allams refusal to use the club’s name, having lost their appeal to change it, and introduction of an unpopular membership scheme, which axed concession pricing, further disenfranchised many in the fan base.

Following that second play-off final win, the Allams relationship with Bruce broke too. He left in the summer of 2016 and that and the lack of recruitment after Wembley, left the club woefully unprepared for life in the Premier League. Mike Phelan was given the unenviable task of challenging at the top-level. He failed and while we had some respite under the brilliant Marco Silva, he ultimately failed too. Since that relegation, Leonid Slutsky, Nigel Adkins and Grant McCann have all taken on the job of reviving the club in the Championship but as ambition and finances have decreased, so has the quality of the playing squad.

We’ve been spoiled for twenty years. We’ve cheered on Ashbee, Elliott, Burgess, Price, Allsopp, Myhill, Dawson, France, Green, Delaney, Duke, Cort, Fagan, Barmby, Turner, Ricketts, Marney, Pedersen, Brown, Garcia, Okocha, Campbell, Windass, Folan, McShane, Zayatte, Geovanni, Boateng, Cairney, Koren, Rosenior, Fryatt, McLean, Chester, Evans, Dudgeon, Stewart, Brady, Hobbs, Elmohamady, Bruce, Aluko, Faye, Meyler, Boyd, Quinn, Davies, McGregor, Livermore, Huddlestone, Long, Jelavic, Dawson, Hernandez, Diame, Snodgrass, Robertson, Maguire, Jakupovic, Clucas, Odubajo, Grosicki, Rannocchia, Markovic, Niasse, Tymon, Wilson, Clark, Elphick, Bowen and many, many more. They’d be all over a list of the top 50 players in the club’s history along with the stars of the mid-60s and the mid-80s. But what now?

In January, Bowen, Grosicki and Henriksen left. The last players left to have played in the Premier League for City. They leave behind a squad of young and hungry players signed for low fees to develop and sell-on. The few players left who cost multi millions (Dicko, Stewart, Kingsley, Toral) are unlikely to survive this next summer.

Thanks to a reasonable start and a good Autumn, City still sit 7 points above the relegation zone despite a run of 8 league games without a win. The play-off challenge is a distant memory as we’ve picked up 12 points from the last 42 available. Staying in the Championship is far from certain but to be relegated this season would still take a monumentally dreadful effort. But, even if we stay up, what then?

This is a dying club under the Allams’ ownership. It has been for years and years. In all fairness, they have tried to put right some wrongs. They have used the club’s name on the badge and all communication, they’ve brought back concessions, they’ve appointed good people in key roles, they’ve run good events for kids and adult fans, and they’ve stopped saying incendiary things. However, it’s all been fruitless. There are people who will never forgive them. There are plenty more who just won’t support a team that isn’t winning or challenging for success.

So, those of us who are left, a dwindling number but still more than there were when Adam Pearson came to our rescue in 2001, are left to watch what happens. The squad is surely about to get even worse as we try to replace £3 million signings with cheap players of promise from League One or the Scottish Premier League. McCann has a nigh impossible job to keep putting a brave face on the task he faces. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he succeeds but it’s being made harder and more unlikely by the week.

Tonight is Barnsley at home. In December, it would have been a much fancied three points to close the gap on the play-of places. Now it’s a relegation six-pointer in front of three men and a dog. The stadium is no longer a shining beacon of hope. It’s the soulless bowl most Rugby fans cried about when the capacity was first mooted two decades ago. It’s tired and it’s a miserable place to be.

It fits Hull City AFC in 2020 to a tee.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Jarrod Bowen: The Epilgoue - Star boy. Star man.

There’s nothing better than watching a young player progress from the youth team (old money) or academy into the first team. Seeing that player become a star is even better. Until one day, they outgrow the club and moving on becomes inevitable. If you want to be really dramatic, it’s like watching your child grow up and leave home. You have to let them go but you still close the door behind them and have a little cry.

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Jarrod Bowen is what the FA would define as a home-grown Hull City player. Others may question that, given he arrived as a 17 year old having already played senior football and scored in the (then) Conference for Hereford United. Regardless, his subsequent progression into senior football in the Premier League and the Championship has been the result of City’s academy and U18 and U23 staff so he fits the home-grown definition.

When Hereford went bust in 2014, Steve Bruce picked up Bowen on a free transfer. It was a no brainer. He had a mature head on young shoulders, was brave enough to move miles from home and, most crucially, he was a bloody good footballer. A left winger back then with quick feet, an eye for goal and a sweet left foot, he quickly became one of the standout players in the U21 side along with Conor Townsend and Max Clark. He scored goals coming off the left wing and worked hard to improve his game.

He never stopped working. Long after his ascension into the first team, he continued to work hard to improve. His strength, stamina levels, right foot and decision-making all improved ppractically game on game. After his breakthrough season in 2017/18 when he scored 14 goals in the Championship, plenty questioned whether he was a one-season wonder. He then scored 22 goals the following season. He’d become Hull City’s best and most important player, by far.

Bowen was the obvious threat in the side and must have formed most of every opposition’s scouting reports before games. They knew he was the danger with his runs in from the right hand side, ability to arrive in the box at the right time and unerring finishing. Yet stopping him was another matter - he has 16 goals this season and would have been well on course to best last season’s tally and go close to the 25 goals Andy Payton scored in Division 2 in 1990/91.

It’s tough to see him move on - though it has been coming for the better part of two years. This next summer his contract would have one year remaining so he’d definitely have gone then. I’d made peace with that. So while it isn’t a surprise that he is leaving, with no bids going into the final 36 hours of the transfer window – there was hope that he’d see out the season.

I’m delighted for Bowen. He’s more than earned the chance to go and play at the top level and with all the will in the world, it’s not going to happen here any time soon. I make the biggest fee City have received for a home-grown player the £1.1m (eventually) received from Blackburn for Tom Cairney so this will absolutely smash that record. It’s win-win for the player and the club. Just as gutting for fans as it is whenever the best player leaves.

Bowen certainly leaves some memories. The best might just be his first goal for City at Aston Villa on the opening day of the season in 2017. He stole in at the back post to nick an unlikely equaliser then assaulted a few stewards to celebrate with his family in the stands at Villa Park. For all the many goals, the games he dragged City back into, the three points he pinched on his own – that’s the one I’ll always remember him for.

He was the star man playing on our right. All the best, Jarrod.

Phil Brown: Hull City's Mission Impossible

Ten years ago this week, Hull City parted company with Phil Brown. He was undoubtedly, to that point, the most successful manager in th...