Features Interviews Opinion Scotland

One on One with: Craig Brown (Part 1)

Thursday 13th November 2020 will be a date fondly remembered by most Scotland fans as it was the day that 22 years of hurt and disappointment came to an abrupt end. Having failed to qualify for any major international tournament since 1998, Scotland managed to beat Serbia in the final of the Nations League to secure their place at the European Championships next summer. The magnitude of this achievement and what it means to Scottish fans is hard to summarize. But if there was ever a man who could explain the significance of it, it would be the man who guided Scotland to its last major tournament, Mr. Craig Brown.

Brown managed Scotland for eight years, guiding them to both Euro 1996 in England and the 1998 World Cup in France where we played in the opening game against then holders Brazil. Those squads he built included Scottish icons like Colin Hendry, Gary McAllister, John Collins, Andy Goram, Jim Leighton, Paul Lambert and Ally McCoist and they sparked belief that not only would we qualify for tournaments but we would be able to compete as well. Under Brown, Scotland were well drilled, difficult to break down (with one of the meanest defences in world football) and fun to watch as a Scotland fan (albeit perhaps not against Morocco). It was a testament to Brown’s abilities as a manager that he continued to improve the side over his long reign as boss (over 70 international fixtures which is still a record today) and motivate them to compete as a unit rather than a collection of individuals with the common goal of qualifying for major tournaments.

Besides Scotland, Craig had a long career as a manager both in Scotland and England with spells at Clyde, Preston North End, Motherwell and Aberdeen. We chatted with Craig recently in what turned out to be one of the most interesting and fascinating interviews that we have ever done, so much so that we have split it into two parts! We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!

Back Of The Net: Most fans remember you for your time as a manager but as a player starting out back in 1957 you were considered a hot prospect for the future. Unfortunately, a series of knee injuries would hold back your progression as a player. You did however play under some incredible managers like Scot Symon, who guided Rangers to six league titles and two Cup Winners Cup finals and Bob Shankly who took Dundee to the Division One Championship as well as to the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1963. What influence did these men have on your career and did they have any impact in you eventually becoming a manager?

Craig Brown: As a youngster brought up in Hamilton, I played most of my football for the school team, Hamilton Academy but I also played for Kilmarnock Amateurs U 18 team. I was doing well and was selected for the Scottish Schoolboys in 1956 with the late, great Billy McNeill (who was at Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell,) in the team. The following year I still was of age, and I captained the team which included Alex Ferguson of Govan High School.  We beat England 3-0 at Celtic Park in my first game but lost 4-3 at Dulwich Hamlet the next year.  

I signed from school for Rangers FC and my ability, or lack of it, meant that I never played in the first team.  I was sent for a season for experience to Coltness United Juniors where I played well enough to be included in the Scotland Junior squad.  When ‘called up’ to Ibrox I had 18 months in the reserves but never threatened the two first team guys in my left-half position, Billy Stevenson, who was transferred to Liverpool, and the unconventional Jim Baxter. My lame excuse for my ineffectual performance at Ibrox was the knee injury I sustained which later required 3 operations, and a full replacement eventually. 

Brown signs for Rangers in July, 1958.

The manager of Rangers was Mr. Scott Symon.  You’ll notice I instinctively called him “Mr.”. That was quite normal sixty years ago whereas now “Boss” or “Gaffer” is the nomenclature used.  He was not a training ground coaching manager, but he was a thorough gentleman who commanded great respect.  The best adjective I’d use to describe him is ‘dignified’ and just a little distant from the younger players.  If he unconsciously influenced my career it would have been to confirm that it is no fault to be courteous and that kindness should never be mistaken for softness. 

BOTN: And what about Bob Shankly? That move to Dundee seemed to work for you as a player.

I went on a loan deal to Dundee at a time when loans were not fashionable and after 6 months was transferred outright to Dens Park where the manager was one of the famous Shankly brothers, the elder one, Bob. I did reasonably well there, well enough to earn a medal in 1962 when Dundee won the Scottish Championship using only 15 players in the process at a time when substitutes weren’t in vogue. Bob Shankly, like is brother, Bill, was a big influence on my career, but to copy his management style would be impossible.  He was inimitable.  He possessed a great football brain and a wonderful Ayrshire turn of phrase.  He never called me Craig. It always exalted me to the dirty by “Christ Craig”! Even after a good game he’d say, “Christ Craig, that wisney too bad today, son!” Describing an opponent, he’d say, “He tossed up with a sparrow for legs.  And the sparrow won.  So, take him from the knee doon, as one from eleven is ten!” I could never really use Bob Shankly as a role model as he was a one off, incomparable, but he had the admirable quality of honesty without which I deduced you cannot survive in the cut-throat world of professional football. These two managers I could never emulate but just hope some of their attributes lingered with me.

Brown jumping with teammate and goalkeeper Pat Liney to stop a Celtic attack at Celtic Park, 1962.

BOTN: You got your first taste of management as assistant manager of Motherwell in 1974 before taking over as manager of Clyde in 1977, albeit on a part time basis whilst still working as a primary school teacher. You had ten successful years with The Bully Wee, guiding them to the Second Division title in your first year in charge. What did you learn about management during those years that would help you as your career progressed?

CB: When my indifferent playing career ended prematurely, I was keen to use my SFA coaching qualification which I had taken while a pro player, latterly at Falkirk F C, where I experienced 3 managers, Alec McCrae, Sammy Kean and a former Scotland boss, John Prentice. Again, I had the opportunity to play under very different styles of leadership and, hopefully, learned a few does and don’ts along the way. Also, the team trainer was a man who did well managing Scotland, the legendary Willie Ormond.

Among those instructing and attending the superb SFA coaching courses were luminaries of Scottish football, men like Jimmy Bonthrone, Dick Campbell, Frank Coulston, Alex Ferguson, John Hagart, Archie Knox, Jim Leishman, Ross Mathie, Andy Roxburgh, Jocky Scott, Alex Smith, Walter Smith, and the three McLean brothers, Willie, Jim and Tommy.    

While working as a Lecturer at Craigie College of Education, I was privileged to be appointed as assistant manager of Motherwell FC by the oldest McLean brother, Willie. What Willie doesn’t know about the game is not worth knowing so that was a wonderful learning curve for me. Motherwell had a fine team in the first year of the new SPL, one good enough to knock Jock Stein’s Celtic, Kenny Dalglish and all, out of the Scottish Cup, having beaten Alex Ferguson’s St Mirren at Fir Park in the round before.  

After spending three years at Motherwell the first of my old pal’s acts found me appointed as manager of Clyde F C. Billy McNeill, a good friend from schools’ football had left his job at Clyde to go to Aberdeen F C and he recommended me to Clyde. The players were part-time, so it was a perfect job for me as I was able to continue my full-time lecturing work. The first of many lucrative sales from Clyde was to Billy at Aberdeen when he ‘stole’ Steve Archibald for £25,000 on New Year’s Day, 1978.  In spite of losing our best player halfway through the season we went on to win the 2nd Division Championship. Many other profitable sales such as Pat Nevin (£95,000), Tommy McQueen (£90,000), Joe Ward (£90,000), Gerry McCabe (60,000), Raymond Deans (£40,000), Brian Ahern (25,000), and Jim Kean (£25,000) augmented the attendance income and kept the Club in a healthy financial position.   

Steve Archibald signing for Aberdeen in 1978, much to the obvious disappointment of Brown.

It became apparent this early that club management involved much more than training and picking a team. The club balance sheet had to be considered and man management of players was important especially as, unlike full-timers, they were not wholly dependent on you for a living.   

BOTN: I’ve heard that a few times that many people believe a manager is just picking the team at the weekend and not much more but there is and always has been so much more to the role. Moving on, In 1986 you became Scotland’s assistant manager working along-side manager Andy Roxburgh and together you guided the country to the 1990 World Cup in Italy and Euro 1992 in Sweden. In both tournaments, Scotland finished 3rd, winning once and losing the other two. Regardless, being assistant manager to your countries national team must have been quite the honour. How did that come about?

CB: While still at Clyde I received a phone call at the College where I was employed from Alex Ferguson. He said, “Broon, how would you like the holiday of a lifetime? I’ve been asked (after the tragic death of Jock Stein) to take the Scottish team to the World Cup in Mexico. I’d like Walter Smith, Archie Knox and you to join me as the coaching staff.  We have a minimum of 3 games to play, but we won’t let that interfere with our enjoyment!”. When I said that I had a job during the month of June, Alex (he wasn’t Sir then) suggested I asked for unpaid leave of absence.  Old pal’s act yet again!  Arguably, this was my greatest honour during my career. To be asked, while not working at the top club level, by the best manager on the planet, to join his staff was a tremendous accolade so, having been granted absence at a time when student classes were running down for the summer break, I was on my way to the altitude training camp at Santa Fe in New Mexico.

BOTN: Working for Sir Alex must have been interesting?

Being on the coaching staff under the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson was a tremendous experience for me and also dispelled the late “hair dryer” myth as in the entire campaign I never once heard him even raise his voice. He spoke in a conversational manner, but there is no doubt these high-level players listened intently to every word. 

After the three World Cup 1986 games, when Alex was disinclined to continue the Scotland job, preferring to remain at club level with Aberdeen, Andy Roxburgh was an inspired appointment by the SFA. Having had 9 enjoyable years with Clyde, Andy approached me to be his assistant. I accepted and football, not teaching/lecturing, became my life. I was used to being in charge of a team, so I was given sole charge of the Scotland U 21 team while assistant with the national team. It was possible then as the qualification fixtures matched in those days, the U 21s always played the same opposition the night before the full international.

Brown was part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s backroom staff at the 1986 World Cup.

BOTN: Scotland narrowly missed out on qualifying for Euro ’88 by two points after starting the group badly but did reach the 1990 World Cup. How did you prepare for that tournament?

Andy did very well continuing the World Cup qualification successes of the past.  He took Scotland to Italy in 1990 where his preparation, as always, was meticulous.  The technical and medical staff received weekly lessons in basic Italian from a teacher who taught at nearby Hollywood Secondary School. We saw the problem of having a full-scale proper practice match with injuries, and fatigue, in Mexico, so we persuaded the SFA to permit us to invite 6 youth international players to supplement the squad. 

The preparatory trip to the USA was excellent and our facilities in Rapallo near Genoa were superb. They were not new to the squad because Andy arranged a visit a couple of months before the World Cup to enable the players to acclimatise. We took the projected group to stay in the team hotel and watch the highly charged local derby between Genoa and Sampdoria. 

Weeks later, via a short spell in nearby Malta and a low-key friendly against Norway, we went back to our Hotel Bristol in Rapallo ready for the opening game against Costa Rica.

We were accused of underestimating our opponents but that was a bit unfair as they had a good qualification record and some fine individual players. Had the normally reliable Maurice Johnston not missed a couple of great chances the famous Tartan Army would have been less disappointed at the one goal defeat. But condemnation it was!     

BOTN: How did you and Andy pick the team up and get them motivated for the Sweden after that defeat to Costa Rica?

I’m not without bias but I believe Andy did a great job lifting morale in the five days before our next match against Sweden at the same venue.  Training was lively, with a good bit of humour, and our video analyst, Brian Hendry, produced amusing material on the screen out with, before and after, official squad meetings. The players, without the prevalence of today’s social media and mobile phones, were a bit isolated from the harsh criticism until, on the way to the stadium there was a huge, harsh banner which read “P45 for ROXBURGH”. The fact that Andy laughed and took it so well undoubtedly helped the atmosphere in the team coach and in the dressing room immediately before the match.  The great team spirit was evident in a fine display with a popular guy, Stuart McCall, scoring the winning goal.

Scotland’s failure to beat Costa Rica at the 1990 World Cup was a bitter blow for Scotland’s management team of Roxburgh and Brown.

BOTN: Next up was that difficult match against Brazil right?

Yes, and to lose the final group match against Brazil was not in any way an embarrassment as the game, watched by 62,502, was extremely close against one of the best teams in the world. The only goal was scored by sub, Muller, who came on for Romario, in the 82nd minute as he latched on to a rebound following Jim Leighton’s great save.

BOTN: It must have been disappointing to be knocked out but reaching the Euro’s two years later must have made up for that.

With only eight teams qualifying it was a remarkable achievement by Andy Roxburgh to ensure that Scotland qualified for their first ever European Championship in Sweden in 1992.  

BOTN: When Roxburgh quit a year later in 1993, you were promoted to manager of the national team. Over the next 8 years, Scotland qualified for the Euro ’96 in England and the World Cup ’98 in France which ended up being the last major tournament that Scotland would qualify for up until recently when a 22-year wait was ended with qualification to Euro 2020. There must be a lot of special memories and moments during those 8 years in charge that you look back on.

CB: From 1986 until 1993 when I was surprised to be appointed manager of the national team, I had been working successfully with all Scotland squads. The indefatigable and talented Ross Mathie was in charge of the U18 And U16 teams but when the FIFA U16 World Cup was being played in Scotland I was asked to take charge of the team with Ross as my colleague.  I had known his outstanding capabilities well as he had been with me at Clyde, so it came as no surprise that all the youngsters under his charge were brilliantly coached and schooled in good behaviour and extreme courtesy. Having qualified from a difficult group we beat Germany in the quarter final at Aberdeen, the Carlos Quieroz coached Portugal at a sell-out Tynecastle in the semi-final but lost on penalty kicks after extra-time to Saudi Arabia at Hampden in the Final with a 52,000+ attendance. Second in the world was a creditable achievement as was sixth two years earlier in the FIFA U20 World Championship in Chile when, again, we failed with a retaken penalty against West Germany in the quarter final.

Scotland almost became World Champions in 1989. Despite leading 2-0 with Paul Dickov (above) on the scoresheet, Scotland lost the final to Saudi Arabia on penalties.

Our success was replicated during this period because with Tommy Craig my fine colleague, we reached the semi-final of the UEFA U21 championship in 1992, having beaten Germany at a packed Pittodrie in the quarter final following an away draw in Bochum. The one goal defeat by Sweden over two legs in the semi-final was, again, a praiseworthy accomplishment. So, at youth level in top competition we had been in a quarter final, semi-final and final of prestigious events and, as assistant, had been involved in two qualifications, WC Italy ‘90 and Sweden Euro ‘92, at senior level.

I suspect that my involvement in these successes had quite a bit to do with my unexpected appointment, especially since big names such as Dalglish, Ferguson, Bremner, Miller, McQueen, Jordan, Strachan and Souness were being touted. I was asked to be in interim charge for the final two qualifying games, the first being away from home in the Olympic Stadium, Rome, against Italy who had the incentive of going to the FIFA World Cup Finals in the USA if they were to beat us. Unwittingly I made a controversial selection by playing Dave Bowman in place of Paul McStay. This was because I wanted to eliminate their main man, Roberto Baggio. I watched the Italian warm-up, undertaken in the double penalty box sized area below the main stand and was hugely impressed, but not surprised, at the high tempo of the workout.  The sweat was even pouring down Baggio’s ponytail.  

In spite of my severe warning to our players about early concentration in front of a packed crowd (61,178) we were a goal down in four minutes when Donadoni shot past Bryan Gunn from the edge of our box. I was looking for a hole to jump into in the Olympic track 12 minutes later when Casiraghi angled a shot into our net. 74 minutes left to play, and we were two down against one of the best teams in the world who were eventually only beaten on penalties by Brazil in the WC final months later. Although Kevin Gallacher got a goal back, we lost the game but played admirably.

BOTN: Not a terrible result based on this. That Italian squad was full of quality players.

CB: Indeed. The final match of the campaign was also away from home against Malta a month later. There was a month of speculation about who was to be the next manager with the SFA in no rush to make an appointment and I was one of the least favoured candidates with 8% of the fans’ votes. Kenny Dalglish had the best amount, polling 28%, then Alex Ferguson had 21%, with Gordon Strachan third. The fact that the best manager on the planet had only 21% of the votes helped me when I was questioned because I could say with complete candour that if 79% of the Tartan Army didn’t want Alex Ferguson, I couldn’t give much credence to the poll. 

Anyway, while in Malta the day before the 2-0 victory the then SFA Chief Executive, Mr Jim Farry, invited me to his room where I was met by the Chairman of the International Committee, and Chairman of St Mirren FC, Mr Yule Craig, who offered me the job. I was pleased to accept and the next day before the match SFA President, Mr Bill Dickie of Motherwell FC came to the dressing room and informed the players. It was reassuring to hear that there was spontaneous clapping among the players and staff. I don’t know if all would be clapping months later when harsh squad selection had to be made in an attempt to qualify for Euro 96. My first official Scotland team was: Jim Leighton, Alan McLaren, Colin Hendry, Brian Irvine, Ray McKinnon, Ian Durrant, Gary McAllister, Billy McKinlay, Pat Nevin, Ian Ferguson, Kevin Gallacher, and the subs used were Tom Boyd and Scott Booth.

Craig Brown was selected as Scotland manager in 1993.

I must admit that I was threatened by the man in charge of the SFA at the time, Mr Jim Farry, for whom I had great respect in spite of a few contentious moments such as when I selected an ineligible player, Everton’s Matt Jackson, for the Under 21 team. 

BOTN: How did he threaten you?

The threat? “The Euro ‘96 Championship is next door in England. We must be there! If not, you’ll be sacked!”  

We were there after a successful qualifying campaign when in 10 matches we lost only 3 goals in a group comprising Finland, Faroe Islands, Russia, Greece, and San Marino. Our preparatory trip to the USA was excellent. We were visited by Rod Stewart who invited the entire squad to his concert in the Madison Square Gardens. We joined the 17,000 inside the arena and around 5,000 outside clamouring for tickets. Rod even invited the lads on stage during the show, the second half of which he performed wearing a Scotland team jersey to the great delight of the enthusiastic crowd. The next day he joined us in training and proved he was no mean footballer.

Prior to our return flight to London we were advised that the England team, preparing in Hong Kong, has got a few drinks too many and Gazza was photographed in a dentist’s chair with drink being poured down his throat. There were stories of damage to the aircraft which, if true, would have been exaggerated. Anyway, I warned our guys about our behaviour as I was concerned that some English based press would maybe want to even things up. We went on to the flight dressed immaculately, changed into tracksuits for the journey, then returned to the blazer etc with all ties worn properly. I always recall Ally McCoist saying to me when we landed at Gatwick and the paparazzi were there in numbers, “I can see the headline tomorrow. Scots in sober sensation!”

BOTN: That does sound like McCoist. Euro ’96 was a spectacular tournament to be involved in though.

CB: The Euro ‘96 tournament has been well documented, highlighting our genuine misfortune to miss out so narrowly while giving credit to Gazza for a wonderful goal when we were well on top with 8 corners to England’s 2 and the lion’s share of possession, and sympathy to Gary McAllister for his penalty miss.

BOTN: Let’s talk about France ’98 for a moment. The squad you took to the tournament was incredibly strong yet there was no place for your goal scorer against Switzerland at Euro 96, Ally McCoist. You also lost Andy Goram three weeks before the tournament began after he decided to pull out as he believed he wouldn’t start ahead of Jim Leighton. Both players were in the latter stages of their careers but had impressive seasons in the run up to the tournament. How much did their absence have an effect on how the team performed in France?

CB: Austria, Sweden, Latvia, Belarus and Estonia stood between us and a place in the World Cup Finals in France in the summer of 1998. Once again, our team excelled in the ten qualification matches, again losing only three goals. Significantly, too, the man who missed the penalty against England volunteered confidently to take our next penalty. It turned out to be a crucial one in Minsk to give us a 1-0 win against Belarus at a difficult away venue.  We lost only one match, in Sweden, and were pleased to get to another nearby location, France, for the World Cup.  

The host country, France, who didn’t have to qualify, were seeking friendly fixtures and asked if Scotland would be interested. I agreed, never thinking we were to play the eventual winners, provided we could play at one of the potential World Cup venues. So, in November we went to St Etienne to play a really formidable French side. We were a goal down at half time and I remember just after the interval asking Ally McCoist to warm up as I had it in my mind to replace Gordon Durie. While Ally was preparing himself to a standard such that his pulse count, as checked by physio, Eric Ferguson, would be acceptable to join the fray, Gordon scored one of the best goals I’ve seen from a Scotland player. Now when a player has scored, I always feel he’s on a high and the goal is twice the size, so as the circumstances had altered, I changed my mind and said to Ally that we’d leave it meantime.   Quite spontaneously, the genuinely jocular response was, “Durie, one goal in six years! Prolific, f—-ing prolific!”   And with a smile and no rancour he returned to his seat. We lost 2-1 to Zinedine Zidane and Co and had four other friendlies, against Denmark and Finland, then Colombia and the host country as part of our preparation camp in the USA.

BOTN: Is that when Goram decided to leave?

Squad selection was my next major task, and it was simplified a little when Andy Goram told me in New Jersey that he had to return home for personal reasons. There was suspicion that he had gone because he know that Jim Leighton would be first choice in France. This was totally wrong because the goalkeeper incumbent hadn’t been decided by Alex Miller, Alan Hodgkinson and me. In fact, I’m still in possession of the delightful letter Andy wrote explaining his decision and wishing best wishes to Jim Leighton and the entire squad.

The other contentious issue concerned the fact that I omitted two Euro ‘96 stalwarts from the squad. Before announcing the final group, I met both Stuart McCall and Ally McCoist to explain their omission. Not the most pleasant of tasks I must admit! Let me admit, I don’t think for a minute I got every decision correct regarding selection!

The decision by Brown not to select Ally McCoist or Stuart McCall for the 1998 World Cup was seen by many fans as a mistake.

BOTN: Really? What makes you think that now?

To have to play the world champions, Brazil, in the opening game was, for me and most of Scotland, a mouth-watering prospect. Such was the appeal of the fixture tickets were like gold dust and many personalities, including Tony Blair, Rod Stewart and Sean Connery, were in attendance. Our warmup was indoors because of the opening ceremony and that’s my lame excuse for conceding a goal in four minutes. I was proud of many aspects of our operation that day – our immaculate appearance turning up in the kilt, the respect for the playing strip with every jersey inside the shorts, stockings identical, the response by singing the anthem, and most of all our playing performance nullifying the potent threat of Ronaldo in particular. The 2-1 win I think flattered a very good Brazil team and left us with justifiable optimism for the next two matches.

BOTN: Those two being against Norway and Morocco.

Yes, A fine goal by Craig Burley from a Davie Weir assist, gave us a draw we thoroughly deserved in Bordeaux against Norway setting up the St Etienne decider against the African champions, Morocco, a football mad country with a 36 million population. A fair amount of criticism has been directed in our direction for that 3-0 “humiliation”. I refute that entirely. I’m accused of being a statistics guy, but I maintain that the stats are factual. The official FIFA report has Scotland in front in every respect except goals scored: corners 6 – 1, offside 3 – 4, shots 22 – 14, fouls 13 – 18, possession too………. and this is playing most of the second half without Burley who received a red card.

To be continued.

For part 2, click here

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