Apparently, his position had become untanable... It didn’t take long for the first jokes about the sacking of Preston North End manager Phil Brown to start circulating amongst Preston North End fans. But jokes aside, Brown’s departure (along with his assistant Brian Horton) appears to be an overreaction to the club’s somewhat bizarre start to life in League One.
With the club lying bottom of the Championship when he took over in January, very few people seriously expected Phil Brown to prevent PNE from being relegated. The catastrophic defending (worse than that, a lack of emphasis on even the need to defend) of the Darren Ferguson era was not, and still has not been, truly remedied. Relegation was no shock, and fans seemed grateful – especially given the small size of the club for the division - for a decade of Championship football with three play-offs campaigns almost ensuring us a season in football’s Premier promised land.
But in Phil Brown, North End fans had a man from who perhaps too much was expected. After all, he had taken a troubled Hull City side from a desperate position in the Championship to the Premier League, so why could he not do the same for North End in League One? In Brian Horton, he had an able and experienced deputy. And, so the rationale round Deepdale went, if Preston were Championship minnows of attendances and budget, then they were giants by League One standards.
I genuinely don’t know, when I get the train to Bournemouth for the last game of the season, whether I’ll be cheering the team into the play-offs or begging them to score a goal to keep us up...
It was to be a puzzling rather than rude awakening. Slightly disappointing opening games (no surprise after a multitude of summer departures) were followed by seven league wins on the trot – the club’s best set of results for over fifty years. This was not the dream start it quite appeared to be though, as many of the games were high-scoring 4-3 affairs in which North End were reliant on coming from behind, wonder saves and just sheer good luck (I remember it well!) for their victories.
These games were then followed by almost their exact opposite, with only a point being salvaged from nine league games. In a five game run, Preston conceded eighteen goals, the low-point being a 5-2 drubbing at the hands of once-considered promotion rivals Charlton. In this context, a scrappy victory against Hartlepool and a goalless draw against Stevenage have been hailed as a hopeful turning of a corner.
How much of the blame for this astonishingly bad run of results can be placed at the feet of Brown, especially after such a promising start to the season? Brown certainly has his faults. In Graham Alexander, Ian Ashbee and Clarke Carlisle, Brown purchased likable, hard-working veteran players but sadly all have seen their last good season and are struggling at this level. Brown had a commendable attitude towards playing young, home-grown players (a resource we have previously seemed to ignore) but then has employed a rotational system of such bewildering extent that you genuinely do not know who will be in the team from week to week. Paul Coutts, probably the club’s best player at the minute, is often played out of position. His use of substitutes was questionable at best, and the less said about some of his loan signings the better (we must be the only club to repeatedly take players on loan who even on paper, let alone on the pitch, are worse than the ones we’ve got).
But in Brown’s defence he didn’t have it all his own way. The financial climate in which the club is now operating means he must have had less funds realistically than at any point in the last fifteen years. The prolific strikers Neil Mellor, Jamie Proctor and (the genuinely talismanic) Iain Hume have all struggled greatly with injuries. But all are now returning to play, and with recent results, perhaps the mythical corner Brown spoke of has been turned.
It is too late for Brown to find out. But one can’t help but feel a little sorry for him and think that given time he could have achieved good things with PNE. We live in such a world where the club has gone from being five points from relegation (attitude: “we’re definitely going down...”) to being five points from the play-offs (attitude: “we can make them you know...”) in the space of a win and a draw. He certainly hasn’t had the best of times behind the scenes, with illness to former chairman Maurice Lindsay ensuring an absence that must have made signing new players very difficult. In sacking Brown, new Chairman Peter Ridsdale confirms many North End fans worst fears about him and goes to illustrate just how far the club, once a relatively stable ship, has fallen – North End have now had three managers and two/three caretaker managers in 715 days.
In appointing Graham Alexander and David Unsworth as joint caretaker managers, Ridsdale has certainly taken a gamble if, as I expect, they are given the job permanently. Though their commitment is not in doubt, neither has managed before. I remember people being worried about Gary Peters never having managed before and feeling exactly the same about his successor David Moyes (whatever happened to him?) so who knows? These are interesting times to be a Preston fan and I genuinely don’t know, when I get the train to Bournemouth for the last game of the season, whether I’ll be cheering the team into the play-offs or begging them to score a goal to keep us up...
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