Football’s Christmas period is, like the World Cup and European Championship, a law unto itself. The concentration of a huge number of games into a short space of time means bizarre things will happen on the pitch, like Cuco Martina scoring one of the goals of the season on Boxing Day 2015 or Stoke – Stoke! – being involved in a seven-goal thriller against Everton a few days later.
Essentially, the base level for weird goes up a hundredfold between 21 December and 5 January, as the lawless wasteland of Christmas party season imposes itself on the Premier League for a couple of weeks. And yet, even by those standards, Hull City were involved in a truly bizarre episode on Boxing Day 2008.
We have seen plenty of managers present themselves as characters in recent years, from Jurgen Klopp with his heavy metal football to Carlos Carvalhal’s wonderful lines about lobster and sardines, but Phil Brown was arguably the first to fully lean on his reputation as a friend first, boss second, probably an entertainer third.
This is a man who peddled a to-this-day unverified story about saving the life of a suicidal woman – unverified despite his version containing a whole host of theoretical witnesses. But it was a few months before that moment, in late December 2008, that Brown achieved footballing immortality by doing something historic.
Brown’s Hull team had made a blistering start to their debut season in the Premier League. They collected four points from a possible nine in August, although their final match of the month was a demoralising 5-0 home thrashing by Wigan Athletic. The Tigers bounced back to win five of their next six encounters, though, including famous away wins at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, and by late October they were sitting pretty in third place. Was an unlikely top-four challenge on the cards? Not quite, but Brown was doing a tremendous job with a side which featured Daniel Cousin, Caleb Folan, Ian Ashbee and Andy Dawson, the latter two – along with Boaz Myhill and Ryan France – having represented the club in all four divisions.
The cracks began to show in December thereafter, however: Hull lost three on the bounce to Chelsea, Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers, before draws with Manchester City, Portsmouth and Stoke City extended their winless run to six games. A 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough and 2-2 draw at Liverpool offered brief respite, but Hull then proceeded to be demolished 4-1 at home to Sunderland in their final match before Christmas. A trip to the Etihad Stadium on Boxing Day looked like a tough ask too.
Things did not get off to a good start for Hull, who found themselves 4-0 down inside 36 minutes. Then came the half-time team talk, an incident which has gone down as one of the most memorable managerial moments in Premier League history.
It is the sort of thing you will never forget. Brown sat his players down in the centre circle when they would normally be in the changing room receiving a dressing-down. Paul McShane looked close to tears. George Boateng swallowed hard like a kid who has just been caught cheating on his homework. Geovanni stared off into the middle distance, mentally calculating which European clubs might be interested in signing him in January.
All the while the manager was engulfed in a weirdly controlled rage, pointing angrily but carefully at each one of his charges. Not only was he intent on showing them how angry he was, but he needed everyone else to know too.
Did it work? A resounding ‘maybe’. Hull were 4-0 down when Brown achieved immortality and ended up keeping the margin of defeat the same thanks to Craig Fagan’s 80th-minute goal. However, it may well have been the case that Manchester City took their foot off the gas in the second period, knowing they had another game to play just two days later.
It certainly did not help stop the rot, with Hull losing their next four games and having to wait until March for their next win. That would ultimately be enough to keep them up, though: despite winning just once after 6 December, they picked up enough points to stay up on the final day after Newcastle and Middlesbrough failed to get the results they needed to leapfrog them at the last.
Things went much better for Hull in the corresponding fixture 11 months later, with Jimmy Bullard cancelling out a Shaun Wright-Phillips opener when he scored from the penalty spot. The midfielder almost had his effort saved by Shay Given, though, perhaps because he already had one eye on his celebration.
What was that celebration, you ask… Well, it could only ever be a homage to their manager and his most famous on-pitch moment.
“It was the right thing to do, there is no doubt about it,” Brown said three days after the game. “I have got no regrets about it whatsoever. If it bruised one or two egos then so be it, although it wasn’t intended to be that way.
“We were embarrassed, but that wasn’t to do with the half-time dressing-down, it was the first-half performance. We didn’t bring our best game to the table and we got our comeuppance. We can’t allow that to happen ever again. Hopefully the mentality of the group will be stronger for the experience.”