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Nov 5, 2009

Tigers' problems continue to mount

For more than two years, they formed the public face of Hull City, each gravitating towards the limelight in a manner that endeared them to some but increasingly irritated others. As chairman and manager, Paul Duffen and Phil Brown tried to project a positive image, regardless of results.

In contrast, Russell Bartlett remained a largely unknown figure. Anonymity is harder for Hull City's majority shareholder to maintain now: the television cameras were trained on the visiting delegation in the directors' box at Turf Moor on Saturday and they will focus on the home contingent when Stoke visit the KC Stadium on Sunday. Duffen would have welcomed it; Bartlett seems not to, but greater scrutiny of the property magnate beckons nonetheless.

And, for once, Brown might not relish the attention. With the departure of his closest ally, Duffen, who had said he would not be sacked this season, Brown has become the bookmakers' favourite to leave his post. A publicity-friendly manager has seen a series of unwanted revelations: the alleged £40 million annual wage bill, the reported £5.5 million spent on agents, the fact Hull made just £2.8 million from the sale of their best player, defender Michael Turner.

Duffen, as the money man, bears the greatest responsibility, but unflattering financial results are mirrored on the football field. With just three league wins in 2009 and four in the last 12 months, questions can legitimately be asked how a club with a wage bill that belongs in the upper half of the Premier League compiled a team that appears to merit its place in the bottom three.

Instead of Duffen, with whom Brown holidayed last summer in the south of France, his future rests with Bartlett and the returning chairman Adam Pearson. The latter appointed Brown, has backed some managers relentlessly and disposed of others ruthlessly; if he, like Duffen, thinks Brown is doing a better job than Rafa Benitez, he has not said it publicly.

His immediate focus is on trimming a bloated squad. Their composition damns Duffen, but doesn't exactly vindicate Brown either. Quantity has not been accompanied by quality. There are remnants of their Championship days like Bryan Hughes, Richard Garcia and Nathan Doyle, squad players such as Peter Halmosi, Craig Fagan and Tony Warner that it is easy to forget Hull signed and dissatisfied footballers including Daniel Cousin who have not found new employers.

Recent recruits, such as Paul McShane and Ibrahima Sonko, are substandard. The ponderous Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink arrived after the transfer window closed and after his agent had tried to find the Dutchman a club across Europe and Hull had failed in their pursuit of a surfeit of strikers. It pointed to a summer of discontent yet Hull had appeared among the affluent. Their willingness to pay seven-figure fees for Darren Bent and Alvaro Negredo - neither of whom fancied life by the Humber - suggested the culture of consumption at the KC Stadium could continue. With Bent or Negredo, their league position may have been healthier, but their financial state would have been more precarious.

The list of players to spurn them in the summer, including Michael Owen, Fraizer Campbell, Bobby Zamora and Habib Beye, is lengthy. Even their highest-profile arrival, the January addition Jimmy Bullard, cannot be presented as a triumph: he is yet to start a league game due to injury. A combination of constant rejection, regular defeats and a much-mocked manager mean that, for some, Hull have attained the unwanted status of a joke club. Pearson's task is to determine if both the reality of the results and the image problem are a consequence of Brown. A manager who dared to be different has probably become a caricature.

Brown exudes believe in himself. It was shared by Duffen but not, seemingly, by the players who ignored his overtures in the summer. An excess of confidence has produced some unconventional choices when more orthodox logic had some merit. At Burnley on Saturday, for instance, the resident flair player Geovanni was deployed to shield the defence; earlier this season, the defender Kamil Zayatte played the holding role while Kevin Kilbane, essentially still a midfielder, operated at centre-back. Pitching the teenage defender Liam Cooper in for a Premier League debut against Fernando Torres at Anfield was a gamble that backfired.

Yet such certainty has served Brown well on a rise few predicted. He applied unsuccessfully to manage Carlisle, Bournemouth and Wycombe in the eight months between his departure from Derby and his arrival at Hull, originally as Phil Parkinson's assistant.

Then they were threatened with relegation. Reminders of lowly origins, no matter how valid, rarely camouflage an unpleasant present. Brown is the most successful manager in Hull's history, but he claimed that title the day Dean Windass volleyed them into the Premier League. A reign approaching its third anniversary saw remarkable progress in the first 22 months and an unfortunate regression in the subsequent year.

With problems on the pitch and difficulties on the bank statement, Hull have cause to wish that the spotlight would settle on someone else. Instead, it is likely to linger on them for some time to come.

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