The most amazing aspect of the infamous player in-fighting on the Humber Bridge was not that it happened at all, nor that the newspapers splashed it over their back pages. By now we have grown used to Hull City’s massively enhanced media profile since promotion, and we all know that nothing excites the tabloids more than footballers up to a bit of mischief.
No, what was astonishing was the reminder that two big-name players like Nick Barmby, with 23 international caps to his name, and Jimmy Bullard, who was well in the England reckoning himself before his injury on his debut, actually turn out for Hull City. And they don’t particularly stand out from the rest of the squad – we are blessed with several other similarly talented players the likes of which have never been seen in Hull before.
Despite our lowly league position, there’s a rich seam of quality available, particularly players with an attacking bent. As a recent terrace song, which hasn’t caught on as much as it should have, runs: “Woah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, we’ve got Barmby, Ghilas and Geo, we’ve got Bullard and Hunt and a Dutchman up front with the longest name that I know.” Ahem.
In addition we have Jozy Altidore, the most expensive US player ever and their brightest talent; Amr Zaki, who last year was the hottest property in the Premier League; and Tom Cairney, the teenager who, when his agent allows him to play, has proved a natural at the top level and is already being touted as a future England star.
Just how can a team boasting, in alphabetical order, the attacking calibre of Altidore, Barmby, Bullard, Cairney, Geovanni, Ghilas, Hunt, Vennegoor of Hesselink and Zaki, fail to stay in the Premier League? How have we scored fewer goals than anyone but Wolves or Portsmouth and with the worst goal difference of all 20?
So, while I find myself persuaded by, among others, premier Hull City blog Boyhood Dreams’ valedictory post saluting Phil Brown’s achievements, there’s another part of me that thinks we’ve massively under-achieved this season given the talent at our disposal.
Sure, several of the players, notably Bullard, have been unavailable for large chunks of the season, but even with a full roster Brown has frequently carded plodders like Richard Garcia or Craig Fagan at the expense of flair players who can damage the opposition. And he has failed to coax as many impressive performances out of our star names as we could have expected.
This is to take nothing away from the achievements of Brown, undeniably Hull City’s greatest ever manager. When Adam Pearson delivered the bullet I felt mournful, angry and confused – all sorts of emotions except for joy or relief at his departure. But when you possess what’s widely reported as one of the top 10 wage bills in the country, and can call on an exciting arsenal of attacking midfielders, wingers and strikers, it doesn’t cut it to persist in playing Fagan as a lone offensive option in a backs-to-the-wall 4-5-1 formation.
That’s also why an ultra-defensive disciplinarian taking over and looking to grind out some hard-fought points just won’t suit. Teams which are hard to beat primarily have a strong defensive unit, something which we simply can’t offer, certainly not with Zayatte and Gardner out injured.
Can we really expect novices like Stephen Mouyokolo and Liam Cooper, often iffy full-backs Paul McShane and Andy Dawson, and keeper Boaz Myhill, who runs hot and cold more than the shower in the Comfort Inn, to keep many clean sheets in our last nine games? Very unlikely.
So our chance of safety relies on someone to coax match-changing performances from players who we know have the magic in them. Bullard, Geovanni, Altidore and Hunt have all provided occasional sprinkles of it this season.
We need a manager who is used to handling mercurial talents, who can inspire them to repeat the trick more often and who can send them out on the pitch with the confidence to be creative. It need not necessarily be free-flowing, attractive football – the back seven still need to harry and hoof as needed – but we do need to unlock the attacking potential in the side.
The ideal managerial candidates, fulfilling the remit that he needs to be immediately available rather than contracted elsewhere, are Sven-Goran Eriksson or Mark Hughes. And I can see why flamboyant characters like Terry Venables or Kevin Keegan have their champions, though for me they are yesterday’s men.
More cerebral types like Steve McClaren and Avram Grant would be superb longer-term appointments, though perhaps not the immediate ‘big impact’ person that Adam Pearson has talked about.
But sacking Phil Brown to replace him with someone like Iain Dowie, out of the game since helping relegate Newcastle United last season and yet to impress in any of his chances in the top division, or Gareth Southgate who took Middlesbrough down despite boasting better resources than Hull City last season, would be absolutely unfathomable.
And yet, as I write this, the radio is reporting that Dowie’s exactly who Adam Pearson seems intent on appointing…
FOOTNOTE: Reviewing this post, I don’t think I’ve given Brown enough credit for the scarcely believable, unprecedented tricks he pulled off at The Circle. I will attempt to do him justice with a proper tribute post when the dust has settled, but at such a crucial stage in the season worrying about our next manager takes precedence over eulogising the previous one.