Phil Brown and Hull City: Where Did It All Go Wrong?
There is a popular and lazy misconception that Phil Brown's tenure as the manager of Hull City started to unfold when he gave his team a dressing down at half time at Eastlands last season. This perception has been fueled by lazy journalism and ill informed fans who can see no further than the tabloid press stories and the woodentops on the BBC's "Match of the Day."
It is true that the incident didn't help matters, but when Dean Windass, who played in the match, was asked about it's affect on the team recently, he said, "People have asked that question on a numerous of occasions and the answer is no."
Windass continued, "At the end of the game nobody mentioned it—or on the bus on the way home. It's what Phil wanted to do that day, it was just the media who took it and dragged it on a little further."
The rot actually set in for Brown when the team won promotion to the Premiership. This may seem strange, but from that point Brown and the club as a whole could not compete on a level playing field with other teams—from players, to transfers, to wages, and facilities.
Once the club joined the top flight, the club became a minnow.
The club hit the ground running in the Premiership with some astute signings in the likes of Geovanni (on a free transfer from Manchester City), Kamil Zayette (from Young Boys of Zurich), and Marlon King (from Wigan on loan).
The adrenaline was still fresh off a successful promotion winning campaign, and the free flowing and attacking style that had seen the Tigers get to the top flight for the first time in it's history could carry the team only so far.
This style was very successful at first, because with the exception of Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion, the Premier League teams had little knowledge of the Tigers style and frailties. After historic victories against established Premier League teams such as Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham and Newcastle United, it all seemed too easy, with naive fans and a chairman claiming that Europe was the next step.
The club and Brown soon learned that with an attacking style, the better equipped, established sides could counter this and put Brown's team on the back foot. Hull City's fragile defence was unlocked successfully on too many occasions.
With the need for a more cautious approach that Brown had to instill in his team came unrest.
This manifested in the form of Marlon King fighting with teammates and benched players, such as Windass, complaining about playing time.
But Brown had to do what was right for the club as he saw it. In King's case, he was also going through a number of off-the-field problems that would see him end up serving a prison term for assaulting a young woman in a London bar.
Brown could see that the main problem for the club was not the strikers, because they had been scoring.
It was the service that they were not receiving from midfield. However, as results started to slip, Brown attempted to nip it in the bud at the City of Manchester Stadium on Boxing Day.
Brown had given the players time off on Christmas Day, but the first half display was shocking. Brown made the decision to hold part of the halftime team talk on the pitch for the benefit of the many travelling fans that had spent Christmas in Manchester so they could see their team the next day.
The next game came very close to dispelling the myth that Brown had lost the dressing room after the Eastland's incident. The Tigers were very close to earning a well-deserved draw against an inform Aston Villa team, only to be undone by an unlucky own goal and some very poor refereeing.
The Tigers earned a credible draw in the FA Cup at Newcastle's St James' Park, but then came a major change in tactics from Brown and Hull City.
In contrast to the free flowing 4-4-2 formation that had seen the Tigers climb up the Premier League table, Brown changed to 4-5-1.
Despite some awful refereeing decisions and an offside goal to give Everton the lead in the next game, the Tigers were particularly negative in the 4-5-1 formation. This continued, and it saw the Tigers losing the initiative in too many games. And from a proactive style of play, the team became a reactive team.
Brown attempted to give the team the much needed spark in midfield by breaking the club's record transfer fee to sign Jimmy Bullard from Fulham. The signing of Bullard was a definite show of intent and ambition by the club, but with Bullard's injury record and huge wage it was a bone of contention.
Unfortunately for Hull City, Bullard, and Brown, the midfielder was injured in his first outing for the Tigers, after only 37 minutes at Upton Park.
The rest of the season carried on in this negative vein with a backs-to-the-wall negativity that ultimately saw the club survive by the skin of it's teeth on the last day of the season because results went Hull City's way.
Brown had seen that the club was thin in terms of quality and tried to paper over the cracks in the best way he could, by trying to buy a quality player in Bullard.
However, with Hull City a new side to the Premier League, attracting players was always going to be difficult. To entice players to the club has always been difficult, but when you are the favourite to be relegated it makes it even harder.
The signing of Bullard was a very good attempt, but because he re-injured himself so soon, the club was back at square one. But again, this demonstrated the difficulties of new teams in the richest league in the world.
To sign players for clubs in the position of Hull City, they have to gamble or sign players that are unproven at that level—neither of which are particularly cheap options.
You have to speculate to accumulate.
This is exactly what happened in the closed season. With the absence of King and Windass, and Daniel Cousin seemingly only interested in putting in a good performance against the division's best teams, Brown targeted strikers.
However, due to the poor handling of transfers by his friend and chairman Paul Duffen, the team made ludicrous bids to sign Spaniard Negrado from Real Madrid for 13 million Euros. Another audacious bid was for ex-England striker Michael Owen from relegated Newcastle United.
Unfortunately, the club's financial problems were not helping Brown with the club, selling important players such as Sam Ricketts to rivals Bolton Wanderers and Micheal Turner to Sunderland for a paltry sum.
Ultimately, the club did bring in strikers, but with two of the main defensive team at other clubs the defense and with Bullard still out injured the midfiled was still short on quality.
The club's second season in the Premiership continued in the same vein as the last with a negative style of play, partly due to the loss of experienced defenders and a lack of quality in the middle of the park, meaning that the defense was getting little to no protection from further up the field.
The midfield being short of quality and missing a good holding player led to lost possessions on a regular basis. The knock on effect was that the team seemed to be constantly defending deeper and deeper. The constant hustle for the ball because of a lack of possession led to lapses in concentration and conceding late goals in both halves of games.
The packing of the midfield with five midfielders should alleviate this by restricting space, but with a static midfield that is slow to react and that does not attempt to find space when moving forward, means that the team loses possession to easily.
In October, Duffen, the club chairman, stepped down and former club owner Adam Pearson returned. There was much speculation that Pearson would remove Brown from the Hull City hot seat, but after a spirited display in the two-nil loss to Burnley, Pearson saw enough to think that Brown still had enough to save the club from relegation.
With the return to fitness of Bullard in November, it led to a purple patch for Brown and the Tigers, as they reverted to the 4-4-2 formation.
His plan, formulated the season before, was to have a quality player in the middle to control the passage of play, and it seemed to work, as the team climbed out of the relegation places for the first time in weeks. It also won a "Player of the Month" award for Bullard, who was phenomenal in that month. Interestingly, Brown was touted as a possible Manager of the Month in the same month.
Unfortunately for Brown, Bullard sustained another serious injury that would keep him out of the side for nearly four months. With the injury to Bullard and the loss of Seyi Olofinjana to the Africa Cup of Nations for a month, Brown's midfield that had started to perform well was decimated.
With results in decline, Brown went back to a cagey 4-5-1 system to stop the defense from leaking goals, with his Tiger's side only gathering three points. It was only with the return to 4-4-2 that results started to turn again.
Two gifted goals to the Wolves allowed them to earn a draw. A great draw against Chelsea and brilliant display to beat Manchester City saw the Tigers again climb free of the relegation placed. A plus for Brown was the performance of his aging midfielder George Boateng and young tyro Tom Cairney in a similar role that had seen Bullard control games so well in November.
However, Brown's Tigers returned to their inconsistent ways with a lacklustre performance to Blackburn Rovers, followed by a hammering by West Ham.
Once again Brown reverted to the 4-5-1 system that had been his cautious plan to nullify attacking midfield teams with the away visit to Everton's Goodison Park. This despite the fact that with the 4-4-2 system only a month earlier his team had destroyed a very good Manchester City team.
This was on the back of a totally inept display that saw Brown's team capitulate to a team full of confidence, as Everton ran out five-one winners. Pearson started to think of a change.
Despite a spirited display with only 10 men against Arsenal were the Gunners only won three minutes into injury time, Brown was relieved of his managerial duties.
Ultimately for Brown, he was in charge of a team with no credentials in the top flight. It takes time to establish a club in any league, but in the rich-blooded Premier League, it is even harder. The top clubs have an almost inexhaustible supply of international players. If one gets injured, another international takes his place. For teams at the wrong end of the division, they can only dream of such a luxury.
Attracting quality players to new teams for nothing short of a king's ransom is a very difficult thing and has bankrupted clubs. You only need to look at Portsmouth to see what can happen if you overstretch a club's finances.
For Brown, he made some good signings and some bad ones, but ultimately, it was the inconsistency of his teams that cost him his job. He has had the Tigers playing some of the best football Hull City have ever played, but at the same time, if the team has one or two injuries, the difference in quality is there for all to see.
The team has had injuries to key players at every turn of both seasons in the Premiership. In the first season, only Michael Turner was a constant in every game, and whether Brown had a hand in the transfer or it was economics that led to his sale, we have no way of knowing.
It is unfortunate, but in the Premiership more than any other league in the world it all boils down to money. Brown proved that he can produce winning teams but without money to bring in quality he was always going to struggle.
There is no way of knowing whether Brown would have been able to raise his and the team's game for the last nine games of the season, but I think that with the teams that the club have to play, Phil Brown and his Tigers would have lived to fight another Premiership day.
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