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Apr 18, 2009

Tigers boss takes a mauling

"Brown, you're a disgrace to South Shields."

Phil Brown has been called many things this season. In the autumn, they were largely complimentary. In the subsequent months as Brown's profile has grown and Hull City's fortunes have deteriorated, they have included a variety of criticisms and insults. This, however, was something new.

In his native north-east, where accusations of parochialism can be levelled, this was intended as a damning form of disapproval, so much so that one incensed supporter yelled it, possibly within earshot of Brown himself, three times. The Hull manager's background on Wearside, and his upbringing in South Shields, can be obscured by the emphasis on his footballing schooling in Bolton, but he was the sole Sunderland fan at the Stadium of Light who departed frustrated.

One man's charismatic manager is another's tedious self-publicist, of course, and for much of an uneventful first half, Brown's antics were more entertaining than the match itself. He became the focus of attention, both for members of the press corps and some of a sizeable Sunderland crowd.

Each decision referee Mike Dean made was disputed, often dramatically. There were gestures of disappointment, his body language signalling apparent elbows and perceived dives and regular, piercing whistles. Brown's liberal understanding of the boundaries of the technical area infuriated some - the fourth official seemingly included - and many tired of his histrionics.

Cue an entertaining outburst.

And, some 90 minutes later, cue another, also inspired by Brown. Ricky Sbragia has forged a reputation as the most mild-mannered of managers, showing himself to be the antithesis of Roy Keane. Criticising a counterpart is something he would not countenance until Brown's pre-match comments included suggestions Sunderland were expensive underachievers.

"Motivation wasn't a problem," he said. "We just put the stuff on the walls that Phil Brown said about Sunderland Football Club, talking about the players we bought and the prices on their head. It's nothing to do with him.

"We spoke to the players and told them to have some good reading in the dressing room at quarter past one. The players were a bit annoyed. A manager should just talk about his own club."

Sbragia could discuss his own, and glowingly after a victory that revives their season. Thanks to Djibril Cisse, they won a match that - in purely financial terms - can be ranked among the most significant of the season. If the cost of relegation is estimated at £50 million, the consequences can include a second demotion and administration. This, therefore, was a huge victory.

It was merited. Sunderland scored on the stroke of half-time and fashioned a series of chances thereafter. Cisse and Kenwyne Jones form a partnership that, in theory, should prosper, but in practice rarely have. However, they tormented Hull. The Frenchman scored the decisive goal, heading in from close range after Danny Collins glanced on Andy Reid's cross. "As a football person you look at Cisse coming away from the goal to head the ball back into the goal, I thought straight away something was awry," said Brown. "It was offside, but I'm not going to harp on about it." Jones did have a goal ruled out thereafter and Cisse's eventual replacement Daryl Murphy struck the post in added time at the end of the second half.

At a time of the season when nerves can be suffocating and the larger the crowd, the greater the anguish, the end of the game was predictably tense. There were choruses of "Steed, Steed" when the Sunderland substitute Steed Malbranque successfully occupied a few seconds deep into added time. It is not often winning a corner constitutes such an achievement in the eyes of so many.

Hull's initial achievement staggered most of us. Yet, after going level on points with Liverpool and Chelsea at the top of the division in October, they are now in their lowest position of the campaign.

Statistics - such as two wins in 24 games, or the second worst defensive record in the division - can be depressing, though Brown preferred to look elsewhere for his facts, remaining defiant in his analysis of Sunderland's balance sheet. He still feels that £80 million has been spent - or even squandered - in the last two seasons. He added: "Is somebody questioning that they haven't spent the money?"

MAN OF THE MATCH: Danny Collins - Though Sunderland's strike duo and midfield quartet all excelled in the second half, Collins performed well throughout. His role in Cisse's winner may prove his most significant header of the season.

SUNDERLAND VERDICT: If they play like this for the rest of the campaign, they should survive. The problem is that they only have two remaining home games and they are against Everton and Chelsea. Some queried Sbragia's decision to leave Kieran Richardson and Steed Malbranque on the bench but Carlos Edwards, Grant Leadbitter, Teemu Tainio and Andy Reid enabled Sunderland to take control of the midfield.

HULL VERDICT: Craig Gordon was only seriously worked once, by Kevin Kilbane, and a lack of creativity is an issue. With three of the top five still to play, it is hard to see where their next win will come from. Their managed seems intent on constructing a siege mentality. "People have written us off against Liverpool already," said Brown, who faces the Rafa Benitez's side next. "Write us off if you want to, but we've still got five games to go."

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