When Phil Brown arrived at Kidderminster Harriers in January, the situation was bleak. Defeat to Rochdale had left the club not just bottom of the National League but seven points from safety. What has happened since has been remarkable.
Brown has guided Kidderminster to four wins from his four games in charge. It is as many as they had won all season. Improbably, though still in the relegation zone, they are now just seven points away from the top half of the table. Belief has been restored.
We were so far adrift that people were already saying we were dead and buried,” Brown tells Sky Sports. “The players were staring at a league table telling them they were rock bottom and needing snookers to get out of it. But I am a decent snooker player.”
He laughs. It is a nice line, delivered with that familiar twinkle. Brown has operated higher than this, of course. But the man who once took Hull City to the Premier League and then kept them up in the club’s first-ever top-flight season, is revelling in this new role.
Now 64 and having been to work in India and back since his Hull days, he was last seen helping to keep Barrow in the Football League last year. “We had nine games to go and the target was a bit clearer because we were closer to the end of the season.”
The task at Kidderminster looked more daunting, the turnaround required more drastic. What persuaded him to take on this apparently hopeless case? “I was looking for a good club with good people that had a cause. I think I found that,” he explains.
“To be honest with you, I also looked at their results so far this season. I was absolutely amazed and flabbergasted by the number of games in which Kidderminster had been either in the lead late on and drew or were level in and lost those games late on.
“One goal or one moment had been the difference. I looked at those results and thought to myself that if I could just turn the corner in one or two games and prove to the players that if they did certain things and did it successfully, there would be an opportunity here.”
And so it has proved. His two away games have been won 1-0. The home fixtures have been more dramatic. Twice Kidderminster have fallen two goals behind. Twice they have conjured up astonishing comebacks to take all three points. Aggborough is rocking again.
The win over Oxford City last time out provided Brown’s personal highlight of his time at Kidderminster so far. He was sent off. Not an obvious choice for his favourite experience but it was what happened next that has stayed with him in the days since.
“I was in the changing room watching the game with my wife, my daughter and my son. When the third goal went in, having only been involved with Kidderminster for three or four weeks, my wife Jade went absolutely ballistic. Nobody saw it apart from us.
“Nobody can ever question the commitment of the Browns because I witnessed my wife running around in the changing room because we had got the third goal. If my wife is in it 100 per cent, I can only afford to be in it 100 per cent as well.”
The man who has registered Premier League wins over Arsene Wenger as well as England bosses past and present clearly still gets a kick out of this game. “There is nothing better than standing on that touchline trying to plot the downfall of the opposition.”
But how has he turned it all around?
He is careful to credit predecessor Russell Penn. I thank him for building a group that works hard. That was in place.” He watched caretaker Jimmy O’Connor oversee a penalty shootout win in the FA Trophy. “There was something to work with,” he adds.
“I learned one word during my time in India and that was imandari – and that meant honesty. If you get a group of honest players working for you it is a wonderful feeling. Win, lose or draw, as a manager, you can hold your hands up and you can be happy.”
The team desperately needed a new voice and Brown tried to connect quickly. “That is what I did on the first day. I opened up to them. They might have thought I was a ‘madman’ because I was telling them one or two stories that will remain in house.”
Brown has plenty of stories. There are those from his days as assistant to Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers. The club finished sixth in the Premier League in his final season there, assembling an entertaining group to great effect.
There was the time that the kitman stuck Ricardo Gardner at left-back on the whiteboard and Allardyce liked the idea so much that he played him there for years. Or the one about their cutting-edge headsets having an open line that picked up the local pizza orders.
They are the tales of after-dinner speeches but the truth is that Allardyce and Brown were ahead of their time. Their superior understanding of the transfer market and the club’s fledgling performance analysis helped Bolton to consistently overachieve.
“We were fighting against the odds,” says Brown. “Particularly that period from 1999 to 2001 in the Premier League when we had the smallest budget, the smallest squad, the worst group of players by most people’s reckoning. But we had this way of playing.”
The style question is something that Allardyce has had to defend for years. Brown has his own explanation. “It was discredited with those two words ‘long ball’ but it was all about what happened after the long ball. What happened was the second ball,” he says.
“Everyone talks about regains and transitions now. It is winning the second ball, basically. Win enough of them and if you have decent players, you will hurt anyone. That is what we did at Bolton. We won that second ball and we were in their half and hurting people.”
At Kidderminster, he is assisted by Neil McDonald, who was on that staff at Bolton. They are still trying to find an edge. “We have rules in place. When you tick those boxes, it can be a winning formula. And he has a group of players who are buying into it,” he says.
“It is difficult to stick to your beliefs. My advice to any young coach would be to stay true to yourself. It is so important because when you try to be someone else and you do not really believe it, and you look into the whites of the eyes of your players, they will see it.”
They are believers at Aggborough now.
And yet, when they were still bottom of the table after winning that first game against Aldershot, it only underlined how desperate the situation had become. When the second win was followed by a third, they were able to catch one of the teams above them.
“But then you go four wins on the bounce and all of a sudden you have caught three. That is purely down to everybody singing from the same hymn sheet. Nobody veers off. If they do, they might find themselves sitting beside me, no matter who they are.”
Brown still has a way with words. “If you have the opposition’s respect, do not disappoint them.” But his team are backing it up with their actions. He is happy but cautious. “If anyone thinks they have cracked this game, it does not half know how to bite you,” he adds.
“We are not there by any stretch of the imagination but we are going in the right direction. There is a lot of work to do. We have to finish the job. We were brought in to stay in the division. We are nowhere near that, we have just had a good start.”
Even so, this is the most astonishing turnaround in English football right now. For a manager who has won promotion to the Premier League, coached at the highest level, where would keeping this club in the country’s fifth tier rank on his list of accomplishments?
“If Kidderminster Harriers are a National League club next season, I can say, categorically, that would be one of the highlights of my career. Taking a club from absolute oblivion to survival would be a great achievement,” he says. “But there is a long way to go.”