Hapless Hull give Brown much to ponder
It is September 2008. Hull City go to Arsenal as the rank outsiders. They concede first, level through Geovanni and go on to record one of the most improbable wins in Premier League history.
Fast forward to September 2009. Some 364 days later, they arrive at Liverpool as similarly unfancied underdogs, let in the opening goal and equalise courtesy of Geovanni. There, however, the two stories head in divergent directions. With Fernando Torres scintillating and supreme, Hull are hammered 6-1.
Fearless arrivistes then, they are hapless strugglers now. Touted for a bright future a year ago, Phil Brown is being tipped, probably incorrectly for the sack now. He has vowed to carry on "indefinitely" and chairman Paul Duffen's backing may allow him to do that, but sympathy for him seems in short supply.
It is a combination of results and persona. Hull only have two league wins in 2009, both of them containing more than an element of fortune. Then there is the image: Brown can be seen as a footballing version of Icarus, a man who flew too close to the sun (not to mention The Sun, Sky Sports News and Radio Five). Giving interviews does not account for defeats, but there are colleagues who shy away from the spotlight. Brown has gravitated towards it, and for some in the managerial ranks, his is a hubristic fall from grace.
While a thrashing at Anfield provided little evidence to support this theory, he is an able tactician, albeit one who is overly given to shunning the obvious in the quest for an unconventional formation or team selection (as he did by handing a teenager a debut in defence against Liverpool), yet such talents can be obscured. Singing in the centre circle and giving team talks on the pitch live longer in the memory than tactical triumphs, his call-centre headpiece commands more attention than his success in enabling some lower-league players to perform in the Premier League. That is Brown's misfortune.
His merits may be lost on players as well as the general public. Brown was spurned by so many in the summer that it was as though the word was out on the football grapevine: don't go to Hull. They provided a rare example of a club who appear to have money but cannot spend it. It is hard to convince anyone that such eventual signings as Ibrahima Sonko, Kamel Ghilas and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink were Brown's first choices when more ambitious targets such as Sol Campbell, Darren Bent and Michael Owen were mooted. It leaves him with a squad who resemble relegation fodder.
"I was disgusted in some of the defending, individually and collectively," he said. "I thought we gifted them the goals, to tell you the truth. There should be more pride in the shirt. It's going to be uncomfortable for one or two this week. There's a little bit of pain flying around and it's all coming my way."
It was a match where irresistible attacking and shambolic defending formed a toxic combination for Hull. Torres was superlative, gliding away from defenders with enviable ease and finishing with clinical assurance.
His opener followed Albert Riera's cross, a sharp turn allowing him to wrong-foot Sonko. His second was wonderful, Torres accepting Yossi Benayoun's pass to waltz around Sonko, Boaz Myhill and Liam Cooper before slotting in. The third, while drilled through Paul McShane's legs, was equally precise. Once again, he could have shot earlier, but decided to beat Sonko.
"I think that he can do better," said Rafa Benitez, who will probably never be satisfied in his quest for perfection. "In the last three games he was really good, he was improving his mentality, his work rate and his movement. He is showing now his ability but he can do even better. The main thing is the mentality. He is keen to learn, which is the main thing. He will improve, but how much depends on him."
Torres' trio preceded three more Liverpool goals, Steven Gerrard's misplaced cross and Ryan Babel's late double. It could have been more, as Benitez noted: "Six goals is fantastic but it could be even better at the end because we had some chances."
For Hull, who have already conceded four and five goals in other league games this season, it is getting incrementally worse. After their autumnal excellence in 2008, they have had a shocking September in 2009.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Fernando Torres - This was a fantastic performance from the Spaniard. His contest with the Hull defence was embarrassingly one-sided, which was a sign of the Liverpool striker's brilliance and the visiting back four's ineptitude.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: The image of Benitez as a defensive coach has been consigned to the past. With 22 goals scored already, it is their most prolific start to a season since 1895-96 and an attacking intent was apparent again in the use of Gerrard as one of the two central midfielders. It meant Javier Mascherano was on the bench: frankly there was no need for him against Hull.
HULL VERDICT: They have conceded 15 goals in four games since the dependable Michael Turner left and there is an element of desperation about the defending. The 18-year-old Liam Cooper was handed a league debut and it was a daunting occasion for the teenager, though others - Sonko and McShane in particular - were no better. Whether the alternatives are any better, in the continued absence of Anthony Gardner, is a moot point. Hull spend October facing potential relegation rivals in Wigan, Fulham, Portsmouth and Burnley, but on this evidence, their stay in the bottom three will prove a lengthy one.