Phil Brown: 'You've just got to ride that storm until you get back in the game'

After early success at Hull City Brown has fallen down the league ladder but he still has plenty of ambition
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I arrive a few minutes early for my appointment with Phil Brown and the receptionist at Boots & Laces, Southend United's training ground, points me towards the waiting area, which consists of an old bar stool in a corridor next to the entrance. The carpet is a wild swirl of reds, the type once favoured by pubs due to its ability to soak up infinite beer slops and fag ash and emerge the following day looking precisely as bad as ever.

Eventually, Brown appears, and leads me past the visitors' toilet, where the toilet roll is balanced on the hot tap because there is nowhere else to put it, up the stairs and out on to the roof above the ground-floor gym. He points beyond the pitches where a few players linger, to the spot where, in a matter of weeks, work is due to commence on the club's new stadium. If all goes to plan, soon Boots & Laces will be razed to make way for a retail park.

"It was one of the main reasons why I'm here, in League Two. A lot of people said: 'What have you come to a League Two club for?' But I think this is a bigger club than a League Two club," Brown says. "The chairman's a very ambitious guy and his ambition came out in the interview process. Once everyone sees the building start to go up, everybody who's been looking at the scheme and thinking: 'This is a pie in the sky dream, it's never going to happen,' if they see construction everyone starts believing in it."

Two artists' impressions of the new stadium are pinned to the wall in Brown's office, reminder of the future that was sold to him by Ron Martin, Southend's chairman, before he agreed to replace Paul Sturrock as manager in March. At the time the Shrimpers were ninth in the table and hoping for a late run into the play-offs. Instead, they won once more all season, lost to Crewe in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final and limped across the line in 11th.

"I've been working with these players now for three months and to say I'm quietly pleased is an understatement – I really am very pleased about the level of ability that we have in the squad," Brown says. "However, it's not about that, it's about getting that collective group on the field of play, the winning formula. Towards the end of last season we didn't have that. The season tapered off, motivation went into decline after Wembley, and it was a pretty poor finish to the season."

After six years as Sam Allardyce's assistant at Bolton Wanderers, Brown struck out on his own at Derby County in 2005, and having failed to shine there he made his name at Hull City, whom he wrestled from the foot of the Championship to earn promotion to the Premier League in 2008. Their impact there was immediate: Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur were beaten in consecutive away matches, and when they visited Manchester United that November they were above them in the table.

But when the wheels came off, they did so violently and ruinously. Hull clung on to their top-flight status on the last day of the season having lost seven and won none of their last 10 games, and he was sacked the following March after a run of one win in 16 matches. Some of his managerial innovations, such as walking his players across the Humber bridge – on one occasion he claimed that he talked a suicidal woman out of leaping to her death, something not backed up by any of his players or the Humber bridge board or delivering his half-time team-talk on the pitch during a heavy defeat at Manchester City, were widely mocked.

"I don't think they were gimmicks, they were done for a reason," he says. "The Humber bridge used to fascinate me, and what used to fascinate me about it is why would someone want to join North Ferriby and South Ferriby? Put them two parts of the map together with this wonderful structure, instead of going all the way inland and all the way back? It's a simple enough idea, but it takes a lot of foresight to achieve it.

"I look at Southend pier. It's a mile and a half long, right on the Thames estuary. And I think: 'Why do people do that?' It's just to show what you can achieve. So we've been along the prom a couple of times. We've had walks and warm-downs. We've had training sessions on the beach. And I've inquired to Southend council to see if we can get a free run along the pier – you have to pay about seven quid to get on it. So if we do a warm-down there it'll be a relaxing day, they'll go on a mile-and-a-half jog and end in the middle of the Thames estuary. What's crazy about that? What's stunty about that? It's about using the local terrain."

Perhaps it is the public perception of Brown as a perma-tanned novelty act that has dissuaded so many chairmen from appointing him. Only an unsuccessful 11-month spell at Preston North End, whom he took down from the Championship, has broken his three-year freefall from top flight to fourth (he completed the journey a couple of months quicker than Portsmouth). Along the way he was linked with dozens of posts and attended several interviews, but found employment elusive.

"Sometimes the game tends to turn its back on you, and you've just got to ride that storm until you get back in," he says. "It was a really difficult time. I was offered two or three jobs but turned them down, because I didn't think it was ambitious enough, or I didn't think it was achievable. Then I was pipped at the post on maybe three or four. You'd go for interview and then get a call from the chief executive saying: 'That was fabulous, we'll be making the decision tomorrow, you're looking favourite.' Then someone else comes in and gets the job. And it does knock you, because you wonder, when's the next one's going to come along?"

"I think management's a fit. There's the DNA of a manager, and the DNA of a football club, and if they don't fit there will be instant friction, and it will not last long. The best example of that would be Brian Clough at Leeds: great manager, great football club, didn't fit. I'm hoping, fingers crossed, that I am a fit here, and that I can get back to the levels of management that people are used to seeing me at. It could actually be the last chance saloon, this, if I don't get this right.

"The Hull City success, that's over three years ago now. At Preston I inherited a club that was seven points adrift at the bottom of the division. In the end we were one game from surviving, but we still got relegated and that goes on your CV and that's what you'll be remembered for. I just hope that after the Preston disappointment, this is going to be a long and fruitful marriage with Southend. There's a lot of managing left in me. I'm not saying this is my last stop by any stretch of the imagination. I'd love to be a Bobby Robson that dies on the job in his 70s, and achieves the kinds of things he achieved."

Pre-season results, which have included victory over a young side from Allardyce's West Ham United and a draw in Spain against Real Madrid C, have encouraged Brown to believe that he can inspire his small squad – due to a transfer embargo they can have no more than 20 first-team players, and are a few short of that – to new heights. "In Madrid we did a tour of the Bernabéu, and you go through all that history," he says. "And the players are saying to me: 'That's Iván Campo,' who I worked with for three years at Bolton. 'There's Fernando Hierro,' who I worked with for a year at Bolton. These are legends from the world of football and I'm there and I've worked with them.

"It was nice to have them understand that I've been at that level. It takes a lot of sacrifice to get there and these guys have the ability, not to play at Real Madrid, but they have the ability to play higher. They just haven't got the mentality yet, and hopefully I can put that into them."

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