Brown out? An examination

Phil Brown

Phil Brown

Brown Out. It’s a growing sentiment. It started in earnest back in April 2016, when the Southend manager decided to link himself with the Bolton job, and it has never really gone away since.

To supporters of other clubs, it is absurd. I know because they’ve told me. “Why would you want to sack a manager who’s taken you up to challenging for the play-offs in the division above where you started?”. Fair point, one that shouldn’t be forgotten in the debate.

As a counter, Brown outers will say that he inherited Paul Sturrock’s team that was riddled by the worst injury crisis that a Southend manager has ever experienced yet provided several of the squad that won promotion two years after Brown took charge. They will also argue a club the size of Southend, with regular 6-7,000 gates in the bottom division, were punching well below their weight before Brown’s intervention.

But there’s more to it than that and it’s fair to say there’s a bit of a swing-o-meter. You have some who will defend the manager to the hilt, some who have always taken a dislike to him, and quite a few floating voters in the middle who are guided by how the team are doing at the time. At times, it threatens to pull the support apart. Since that spell last Spring, which coincided with an awful winless run that resulted in a lower-mid table finish that masked a relatively successful return to League One, the question has never really gone away.

Phil Brown lost a lot of fans during that time. Personally, I was calling for his head after his ‘come-and-get-me-plea’ which coincided with one of the worst Southend performances I have ever seen, against Wigan. Having been a regular throughout the late 1990s/early 2000s nadir of shitness, that’s up against some pretty stiff competition.

I was won over by the way we recovered a terrible start to the 2016/17 season to finish a point outside the playoffs. I think it’s fair to say we played some of the best football Southend fans have seen in a while, regularly winning by three or four goals last season. The end of season choke was put down to a few injuries and general Southend-Unitedness, rather than managerial ineptitude.

Throughout his time at Southend, Phil Brown has been a manager of runs, bad or good. Who can forget the incongruous 13-game winless run in the middle of a previously solid season (2013/14) or the autumn-winter of 2016 where we seemed unbeatable and rose from the bottom of the table to a playoff position in two and a half months?

It can be hard to keep up with Brown’s moodswings. One week, he can be lauding a player to be the next big thing, the next he can have them in on a Sunday morning and be hanging people out to dry in the media. Now this could be a finely tuned tactic to get the best out of his players. After all, some do need a kick up the arse from time to time, and some will need an arm round the shoulder. Brown never seems to miss an opportunity to use the media to do this, which may grate at times but is not necessarily a bad thing.

This week however, the manager does appear to once again have alienated his own supporters by his comments in the media expressing his interest in the vacant Sunderland managerial position. This was followed sharply by the FA Cup defeat against Yeovil, a side with the worst defensive record in the Football League, The big question is, is it now time for Brown to go?

There has been much discussion about these comments on social media and message boards since he said Sunderland was his ‘dream job’. Firstly, I very much doubt Phil Brown phoned Chris Phillips to ask him to print a request to join Sunderland. More likely Brown responded to a quite fair question by Chris about the vacancy at the club he is known to support.

With that in mind, I am not surprised it is Brown’s ‘dream job’ and nobody can dispute that Sunderland are a bigger club than us and would represent a step up. However, why not just dismiss the question with a simple ‘I have a job to do here at Southend and that’s all I am focused on’ with his customary cheeky grin? If you’re so arsed about the Sunderland job, apply quietly through your agent. Why make it public?

Brown is candid and that is a quality that makes him attractive to the media. He has never hidden his ambition to manage at a higher level, but his timing does appear to leave something to be desired. It is probably the main reason that some fans have failed to warm to him during his time at Southend, despite his relative successes.

He also mentioned that his contract was up at the end of the season. We all know that managerial contracts mean nothing, except when there might be some leverage for a new deal. Brown is very much part of the furniture at Southend and has shares in the club – perhaps this was a message to the chairman. If so, it was a public one and certainly those fans who had forgiven him for his Bolton yearnings were very much taken aback. Let’s also not forget loyalty cuts both ways and Brown will be looking for the club to give him some stability, he has a track record of success and a family who he lives away from.

It’s been four and a half years since Phil Brown took charge of Southend. He has won promotion, and improved our league position every year. How many managers can say that? But are things starting to go downhill? His recruitment in the summer was extremely questionable, and the same set of players that were banging in the goals last season are failing to entertain this year. Of course this could be just a question of form – football is a team game and if a couple of cogs in the machine aren’t working the whole system is less effective. Brown can hardly be blamed for that. But if there’s more at play and things are starting to go stale, Ron Martin has a decision to make.

The FA Cup defeat to Yeovil was painful. Supporters of clubs like Southend can rarely expect promotion – a little bit of joy in the cups is just as important as the league. We were the 11th best side to go into this season’s draw. We’ve been in the top 15 for the past three years yet have still gone out in the first round every time. The previous year to that, we were knocked out by Conference side Chester City at home. This is not good enough. Our cup record under Brown is abysmal – no League Cup victories at all, a few FA Cup wins all in one season in 2013/14 and a few JPT games. And don’t even start me on that team selection for the 2013 JPT final.

So can you sack a manage for poor cup performance? No. But you certainly have to take this record into account. I have no issue with Brown’s general performance as Southend manager thus far. But you do have to ask whether he’s taken us as far as he can. The argument about an expensive squad is only partially relevant – this year represents the most cash League One sides have ever had and we are far from the only ones splashing the cash – nor are we the most wasteful (Ladies and Gentlemen, Bury FC) but when you see the likes of Kightly, Cox and Wordsworth failing to make inroads against the Football League’s worst defence, there’s questions to be asked.

There needs to be some healthy perspective of course. We’re 11th in League One, probably about right for a club our size. We’re not in immediate relegation danger so this season so far has been underwhelming, not catastrophic – and of course there is plenty of football to be played. Football fans love to call for a manager’s head after a few bad results, but chopping and changing rarely works. We’re a few points off the play-offs, and just a few league wins will see us very much in the promotion mix. An issue is the entertainment factor – aside from the Blackburn and Fleetwood games, there has been little in the way of quality football to draw the floating voters, and Brown’s pragmatic approach at home defies the attacking talent he has in the shape of Cox, Ranger, Yearwood, Kightly, Wordsworth, Fortune and McLaughlin.

Further perspective can be gleaned from the stats. Phil Brown’s record in charge of Southend reads P237, W95 D63 L79. That puts him at a win ratio of 40%, beating Steve Tilson (39.67%) but not quite Paul Sturrock (41.61%) who of course managed at a lower level (but also rebuilt the club from scratch). Dave Webb scores 43.41%, and he’s the most successful Southend manager of all time (tenure of a year or more Fry you fat c**t). Dave Smith, manager of the record-breaking 1981 side, also had 40%.

It’s down to Ron Martin of course whether he thinks we’ve reached peak Brown, and whether the Tango Man is committed enough to keep striving for better while at this club. If not, he has to go but I suspect the chairman is savvy enough to wait until he has a replacement lined up. Let’s be very clear though, be careful what you wish for. The punters may be tired of Brown, but the statistics of the past suggest we’ll do well to find a gaffer to match his record.