Thursday, 29 October 2009

Mr Chairman

Paul Duffen today walked away from Hull City, wondering how the hell he has ended up resigning with the hoots from supporters ringing in his ears after such a short, eventful and successful period at the helm.

We only know that Duffen has quit as executive chairman. We don't know that Adam Pearson is coming back, though his own resignation from Derby County yesterday would be only the most ludicrous of coincidences if he didn't. And we genuinely haven't a clue what's happening to Phil Brown. Until the club itself issues anything further, we don't know anything.

But boy, this is exciting. And fascinating. The rapidity of Duffen's decline in favour with the supporters and now his paymaster is as remarkable as it was predictable. Upon promotion to the Premier League he did move the goalposts considerably, deciding that the loyalty and commitment of supporters was something to be taken for granted. Certainly he had earned the trust of the long-term supporter by providing a strong figurehead presence under which Brown built a promotion-winning side, but neglected to realise that we have suspicion of career chairmen bred within us.

Duffen became very media-friendly, mirroring the availability of his manager to talk to anyone about anything, and although some of it was entertaining (mocking Mark Lawrenson's dismal predictions of Hull City's quick decline live on Football Focus was certainly one) it quickly became clear that he was doing it as much for the benefit of himself as for the club.

Soon he had scrapped the Fans Liaison Committee and then, very unpopularly, got rid of the Away Direct scheme that provided a worthy tool for fans in it for the long haul to guarantee away tickets. Quickly it became clear that Duffen either didn't value loyalty or, at the very best, assumed it would remain regardless of what he did to challenge it.

Quickly it had also become clear that for as long as he was the taker-in-chief of decisions, Brown was as safe as houses. The beyond dismal form that City have now been in for exactly a calendar year (four Premier League wins) would, correctly, have called Brown's position into question irrespective of sentiment or recent achievement but Duffen would have none of it. The combination of Brown's soaring ego and Duffen's stealth endorsement of it very nearly took the Tigers down when a little more control and composure was all that was required. The two hugged on television and Duffen was tearful on the pitch when survival was achieved but one couldn't help but wonder if his dewy-eyed relief was for himself rather than the club or its supporters.

The big change in Duffen's image came, however, with the debacle over Michael Turner's sale. The fans were treated contemptibly; we were told that the player was the architect of the move (untrue) and that he wouldn't go unless his valuation was matched (blatantly untrue, as if the £12m the club wanted had been paid by Sunderland they'd have not hesitated to say so) and then later, as the problem over publication of the club's accounts became a national talking point, it was evident that money was required to steady individual and commercial ships and that the best footballer in Hull City's history had been cast aside to appease or save cherry-picked members of the hierarchy.

It is now obvious that the attempt to sign Alvaro Negredo from Real Madrid for £12 million was a red herring. Duffen knew he'd never come but needed to show that they were trying to spend big money on a star player to construct a smokescreen around the financial plight of the club. Negredo came nowhere near the Tigers - indeed, one has to ask if the meetings between Hull City and the centre forward's representatives ever actually happened - but for a while the members of the mushroom club who frequented the KC Stadium week on week had been taken in.

Duffen grew more and more unhinged, in tandem with his manager, as the circle closed in. He claimed David Conn's unflattering piece in the Guardian was "poorly researched journalism" in a horrific and hateful and panicky statement issued on the website as speculation grew about the finances; then, in one move a chairman should never take, turned on the fans by calling them "despicable and pathetic" over their daring to question Brown's judgement and continuing role as manager as performances, results and relationships with members of his squad grew steadily worse.

Duffen got it right as a Championship chairman. He knew he was taking over from a club legend in Pearson and made the appropriate noises. However, while it was evident that Premier League football came earlier than expected for manager, players and supporters, ultimately it came too early for the chairman. Experienced in business he may have been, but it has transpired he didn't know anywhere near enough about football chairmanship and a business brain was never going to be enough to help him through. He should leave with some good wishes however, and one hopes he will in time realise where he went wrong as far as the supporters are concerned. Conversely, he may also not give a stuff about the supporters of Hull City for the rest of his days, as sadly it was the impression he gave in his year and a bit of Premier League stewardship. All good chairmen know that the fans come first as when they go, the club goes.

Which brings us to Pearson. His hoped, expected return is not a key to all of City's financial troubles - he simply isn't wealthy enough, which is why he sold up in the first place - but his heart beats in the East Riding and the love he is offered by the Tiger Nation will rarely have been replicated by any other set of supporters for any chairman in their history. He's a considerate but ruthless character who puts the fans at the helm of his thoughts and, crucially, accepts his faults and shortcomings. This is evident from his record with managers in his previous tenure - he sacked Brian Little (probably correctly, though it is close to 50-50 to this day on that one) and replaced him with Jan Molby, whom he promptly acknowledged as a mistake on his part three months later and got rid. He appointed Peter Taylor and proved that a personal friendship (which they generally didn't have, unlike Duffen and Brown) was very secondary compared to a professional understanding, and Taylor took the Tigers to consecutive promotions and an element of Championship consolidation before relations were strained over Charlton's interest in Taylor's services, and though he turned down the job, the manager felt obliged to go to Crystal Palace afterwards when he felt his chairman had undermined him.

Pearson and Taylor's hatchet is long buried, however, and one suspects that if Taylor's beef about his ex-chairman was put to Pearson to this day, he'd accept his side of it. He recruited Phil Parkinson, an exciting appointment on paper but a total disaster in reality, and quickly gave Brown the opportunity initially to rebuild his coaching career by Parkinson's side and then eventually restore some soundness to the club - and save it from the drop - by making him manager. Brown succeeded by the skin of his teeth but nevertheless in as exciting and as poetic a manner as any scriptwriter could have managed (keeping City up while simultaneously sending Leeds United down) and Pearson was vindicated.

He knew at this point, after six years in charge, the club had gone as far as his limited clout could take it and sold up to Russell Bartlett's consortium which made Duffen its public face. Brown got a mandate to put together a three-year plan for Premier League football, even though all we really wanted realistically was a decent season in the Championship, and the result was a thrilling, emotional season which ended with a first visit to Wembley and victory, courtesy mainly of one Hull boy's right boot, in the play-offs.

If Pearson does come back - and it seems the club are going to make it official after this weekend's game at Burnley - the slate will be wiped clean for us all. He left the club a hero, and although he vetted the new owners it should be remembered that their failings have not yet seen us relegated, and now something has happened in ample time for a new impetus to be pushed through the system at Hull City and restore some pride and, ultimately, some form on the pitch.

The one person who should be concerned is Brown. He and Pearson seemed to have a good relationship but Pearson has never been slow to acknowledge managerial failings and has put aside any friendliness with good men when the time has been apt to let them go. He was certainly upset about having to release Little but still did what business demanded, while losing Molby and Parkinson would have at least made his own judgement questionable given that they were his own appointments and both instantly proved incapable of doing the job.

It really would be the weirdest of scenarios if Pearson were to appoint Brown, disappear for two and a half years during which time Brown would take Hull City to its highest level, and then swoop back into the hotseat and dismiss him. Brown has lost his safety net in the boardroom and now it looks like he needs to please a chairman with an accurate view of sentimentality when it comes to managers. Suddenly, the need to build bridges with the players he has isolated and pick teams designed to win the winnable games has become Brown's biggest issue. One bad display at Burnley this weekend and Monday's telegraphed statement from the club could be as much about the manager as it is the new, and hopefully returning, executive chairman.