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Wednesday 29th May 2024

Scottish League Cup Group Stage Draw - 1pm

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Broon in the Herald

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Storyteller Brown knows what he's talking about . . . 

Hugh Macdonald Chief Sports Writer   


THERE is so much mention made of Craig Brown's age that his experience sometimes remains curiously unreported.

The Aberdeen manager, at 72, has shown he is as much focused on the future as he galvanises his club in uncertain times. But his past is decorated with the battle honours of a time when qualification for major finals was seen as expected, even routine.

Brown has been on the Scotland staff at three World Cup finals and two European Championships, leading the team in England in 1996 and in France in 1998. He is the last Scottish manager to have experienced the joy of taking his nation to the big show. It is an extraordinary record, particularly when viewed through the eyes of a generation scarred by disappointment.


Yet there were days in the sun. "We did two laps of honour," Brown says with a smile of the scenes in October 1997 when Scotland beat Latvia 2-0 at Celtic Park to book a place in the World Cup finals. "It was a great time," he adds, needlessly but irrepressibly, before embarking on an anecdote. Brown loves a story the way Oliver Reed liked a drink. They tumble forth in a boyish enthusiasm from the septuagenarian.


"At the first training session of any finals I would hand the boys a letter from the SFA stipulating the bonuses. You would find them crumpled up unopened in the bins. You would see the likes of [Colin] Hendry, [Gary] McAllister, [Ally] McCoist chucking them away. They would tell me they were not interested in the bonuses. They just wanted to play for their country. Imagine the younger boys seeing that . . . you weren't going to have any problems about money or motivation."


There is barely a pause before he continues.

"And I am always asked about my favourite player as Scotland manager. Well, it was Tom Boyd. He won 72 caps. He always turned up no matter what. I would see him with a swollen ankle and ask him: 'Are you all right?' He'd just say: 'I'm fine'. We were struggling at centre-half against Belarus and I asked him to play there and he said: "Aye, all right'."


These details are precisely correct, of course. The Celtic player's appearance at centre-half was away to Belarus in June 1997. Brown's stories have a flourish, but they always have a point.


So has he any simple, straightforward explanation over why the World Cup in France was the last of the great days for the national team? "We have been very unlucky. Injuries have killed us," he says. "Look, we cannot afford to lose big players for big matches. I remember meeting Big Alex [McLeish] in Georgia on the back of an excellent victory over Ukraine and he told me he had to make five changes. We don't have the depth of squad to survive that. I always thought George Burley and Walter [smith] were unfortunate with injuries and Berti Vogts frankly made mistakes over a consistency in selection. He picked too many players and sometimes not the right ones. It takes a wee while to come back from that."


He is also aware that player development has not been the highlight of early 21st century Scotland. "We have brought through good coaches – just look at Scots at big clubs in England and the young managers up here today – but player development has been a problem. There are schemes put in place and some I don't agree with, including the under-20 league. That should be a reserve league."


He is exasperated by the regulations that stipulate that there should be three under-21 players in the first-team squad, the allowance of three over-age players in the under-20 squad, two of which are allowed to be over 23, and the different category for goalkeepers . . . "I have to walk about with lists of eligible players. You have to be a lawyer with a degree in mathematics to pick a team."

He is an advocate for a straightforward reserve league and he believes that the gap from under-17 to under-20 is too great. "The good ones can make that jump but where do the others go? The structure is interesting."


By this, of course, he means anything but interesting. Yet he retains a faith in the ability of the game to produce young players. "We have at last addressed the influx of ineffective foreign players and Aberdeen and Motherwell, two clubs I have been privileged to be associated with, have brought through good players. I am not taking any credit for it at Aberdeen. I inherited good, young players."


This week only two Aberdeen players – Niall McGinn (Northern Ireland) and Jason Brown (Wales) – are away on international duty. But Ryan Jack, Clark Robertson, Ryan Fraser and Cammy Smith are in under-age Scotland squads.

Fraser, at 18, already shows significant signs that he could be a player of substance. "I liken him to Pat Nevin," says Brown, "similar ability and both level-headed boys. He is so unaffected, so determined to play honestly. He never takes a dive."


Brown's enthusiasm extends to the future of the national team. He is unconvinced about the wisdom of starting with two home matches. "I always liked to begin the qualifying campaign with a couple of tricky away ties and then try to gain momentum with home games and I always liked the last home match to be a big game," he says.


Scotland now face difficult matches in Cardiff and then Brussels. "You have to look at the first match and say we have better players than Wales and that we should prove that on the park. The Welsh team are not the flavour the month, given the recent result against Serbia," he says referring to the 6-1 defeat in Novi Sad. "This could be the turning point for us. I do not think all is lost."


He is encouraged by the return of the two Fletchers, Steven and Darren. "We cannot afford to have our best players not playing," he says in response to questions about the Sunderland forward's exclusion from previous squads. "We want him playing, however that happens."

He adds ruefully: "I cannot talk because I never brought Richard Gough back." Brown and the Rangers captain were never reconciled and the manager declined to selected the defender for the 1996 European Championships despite huge media pressure.


He has an obligatory anecdote about Darren Fletcher. "Fergie brought his team up to Pittodrie for Neil Simpson's testimonial and Darren was on the bench. He was warming up at half-time and every time he ran to the stands there was a huge roar followed by a burst of applause. When he came on as a substitute, the place was in uproar. That is the impact that lad has on Scottish supporters," he says, pointing out that great players know their obligations to the fan. "He was concerned people might have thought he was 'milking it" but, of course, he was not. He is a great player, a great guy. We will be better for having him over the next two matches."


He has only limited advice for Levein as the Scotland manager seeks to follow where Brown marched proudly. "I would be never to be as presumptuous to pick his team or advise him on tactics. But he has to be his own man, not be influenced by outside forces."

He will watch the match on television in a state of optimism but with a professional focus. "You are never too old to learn," he says. Never too experienced either.

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