x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Reality check for falling star Phil Brown

A Premier League manager last season, Phil Brown could be contemplating life in English football's third tier should he fail to steer Preston North End to safety.

Phil Brown's task is to keep Preston North End in the Championship. Barrington Coombs / Empics
Phil Brown's task is to keep Preston North End in the Championship. Barrington Coombs / Empics

Ever since Andy Warhol first suggested that "everyone will be famous for 15 minutes", football has provided plenty of corroborating evidence. There are men who have laboured out of the limelight for much of their careers only to be catapulted into the glare of the cameras.

Then there is Phil Brown. A man who embraced fame with the willingness of a contestant on a reality television show has had it plucked from his grasp.

His moment in the sun lasted 18 months, rather than 15 minutes, but as he approaches the first anniversary of his sacking by Hull City, the subsequent year has been a chastening experience. It is a spell that suggests he is football's equivalent of a one-hit wonder.

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Ten months of unemployment and rejection followed. A man who, two years before, had managed a club level on points at the top of the Premier League was only the second choice candidate for the Southampton job, a club then in the lower reaches of League One, English football's third tier. Brown was interviewed by Burnley, without getting the feeling the club wanted him.

Preston North End were altogether keener. In January, Brown succeeded Darren Ferguson at the Championship's bottom club. Ten games later, he still awaits his first win as Preston manager.

League One football has become more of a probability than a possibility. Eleven points from safety with 13 games to go, even Brown's trademark positivity is hard to maintain.

"Everyone at the football club is low," he said this week." A fortnight ago, he optimistically targeted 10 wins from the final 16 games, but the fixture list has conspired against Preston. Saturday's trip to Norwich City is the fourth of five successive matches against top-eight teams.

The first three have only yielded two points yet, in holding leaders QPR and claiming a draw away against Nottingham Forest, there were signs of improvement.

An inventive thinker, whose tactical tinkering can be inspired or unhelpful, Brown has brought a raft of new ideas. Thus far, they are yet to pay off.

In the final analysis, Ferguson's ruinous reign and cost-cutting will be the major reasons for relegation.

Brown inherited a porous defence and a demoralised squad that was then decimated when, in seeming reprisals for sacking the Manchester United manager's son, Sir Alex Ferguson and Stoke City's Tony Pulis recalled their loan players.

Brown saved Hull from a parlous position in the 2006/07 season, but the likelihood is that he will find himself managing in the third tier for the first time.

It is, however, where he spent much of a playing career that went largely unnoticed. A full-back for Hartlepool, Halifax Town, Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool, he spent a solitary season in the two highest divisions, never reaching the top flight.

Perhaps the fondness for publicity stems from a life spent in the shadows.

Brown's time at Hull brought infamy for conducting a half-time team talk on the pitch, apologising to the local women's institute, claiming to have talked a suicidal woman on the city's Humber Bridge around and singing the supporters' adaptation of the Beach Boys' Sloop John B in the centre circle when Hull stayed in the Premier League (a rather more savvy manager put his head in his hands when he heard).

Coaching brought more success than playing but, initially, little attention. Brown spent nine seasons at Bolton, six of them as Sam Allardyce's assistant in Wanderers' most successful spell for half a century.

Yet his first spell in management, at Derby, was a swiftly-curtailed failure. Hull provided rehabilitation and he ended their 104-year wait for top-flight football.

Two months in and confounding predictions of ignominious failure, Hull joined Chelsea and Arsenal at the top of the table by playing attacking football.

"I believed I would prove everyone wrong my way. It was down to belief from the top," he said.

"Managers were coming up against us who didn't know who or what Phil Brown was about."

Then the Sunderland supporter was mooted as a successor to Roy Keane at the Stadium of Light. Instead, his star fell as rapidly as it rose; after six wins in nine games, only eight followed in the next 60. Brown was sacked two months before Hull went down.

Not that disappointment has made him more reserved.

"I want to manage England and, with that kind of ambition, whether you achieve it or not, it will get you somewhere else in life," he said last year.

More pertinent, perhaps, is something he said two years ago: "I am a firm believer in what doesn't break you will make you."

 

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