Preston's pranksters intent on giving Brown last laugh

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The Independent Football

Ghetto blasters are now as integral a part of dressing-room culture as Deep Heat and shin-pads. Craig Brown may not be able to name the songs, but the "racket" is fine by the Preston North End and former Scotland manager provided it helps his team call the tune.

A run of 13 First Division games and only one defeat, sweeping Preston into the promotion play-off zone, would seem to offer proof of the positive effects of a booming bass line. Even so, Brown admits that the sound of silence was music to his ears before one recent match.

After training on Christmas Day, he reminded his squad not to have too much to drink. As they were changing on Boxing Day, prior to facing Stoke, he noticed an eerie calm. "I said to my coach, Billy Davies, 'Thank goodness for that. Peace and quiet for once. Perfect'."

Upon which one of Preston's jesters, Paul McKenna, piped up in deadpan Lancastrian tones: "That's because we've all got a hangover."

Brown, whose fifth-placed side meet Wigan Athletic, level on points and one place behind, in a Lancashire derby at Deepdale tomorrow, believes that fun and laughter are prerequisites to success on the pitch - as long as they are balanced by a sense of professionalism.

During his eight years in charge of Scotland, he worked with inveterate pranksters like Ally McCoist and Ian Durrant. At Preston, he detected an improvement in both the humour and defensive discipline of the team after signing the Celtic goalkeeper, Jonathan Gould, a year ago.

Gould's arrival, like that of another of Brown's former international players, Brian O'Neil from Derby, helped Preston to respectability in his first English season. After losing the leading scorer, Jamaica's Ricardo Fuller, to a cruciate ligament injury in November, they fell as low as 18th in March yet rallied to finish 12th.

"That wasn't bad when you consider that we have one of the lowest wage bills in the division," the 63-year-old Brown asserts. "We're careful not to overstretch and I'm £1.2m up on transfer dealings since I came.

"It's more or less the same team now, the main addition being the central defender Claude Davis, another Jamaican. I got him for not much more than £100,000 from a club called Portmore United - pretty good for an international. I was impressed by him when I went to watch Fuller, who I knew from Hearts but came to us from Tivoli Gardens."

Fuller, whose goal in last weekend's 2-1 win at West Ham United was his 17th this season, missed Tuesday's success at Reading in the FA Cup third-round replay with a swollen knee that makes him doubtful for Wigan's visit.

However, he returned from surgery in Colorado "even stronger than before" according to Brown. "Fuller's fast and powerful," he says. "Some big centre-halves, like Matt Elliott and Gerry Taggart, have tried to brush him aside but couldn't handle his upper-body strength."

Tomorrow's opponents have a new striker of West Indian descent themselves after paying West Bromwich Albion £2m for Jason Roberts, who has represented Grenada. "He'll be a good acquisition at this level," says Brown, who has never spent a seven-figure sum.

"Wigan were jet-propelled when they came up last season. They were used to winning and while they've slipped slightly, they are still in contention. And they've got plenty of money."

He identifies Albion, Norwich City and Sheffield United as the sides who will slug it out for automatic promotion, but notes Sunderland's resurgence. What about "Proud Preston", who were the first English champions but have not featured in the top flight since 1961?

"That's hypothetical," Brown says. "I haven't even thought about us being in the Premiership. It's a bit presumptuous to talk about going up, but we do feel we can make the play-offs. And anything can happen then. If you look at one of our neighbours, Bolton, they came up, hung in there and are now thriving due to wise hiring and firing by Sam Allardyce."

Brown is quick to acknowledge the work of his back-room team, especially his chief scout, Clive Middlemass, whose "phenomenal knowledge" eased his transition from Scotland to England and from international to club football.

One of the most striking differences has been the increased amount of travelling. Speaking as he prepared to drive to Glasgow for a dinner to celebrate the centenary of Hampden Park, Brown noted that trips to Eastern Europe involved only a few hours on a plane, whereas Gillingham away meant a seven-hour haul by coach. Preston now let the train take the strain, a move copied by several Premiership clubs.

Another innovation, highlighting his meticulous attention to detail, was to produce a sheet containing the players' names, neatly typed, above which they inscribed their autographs. The idea was that fans acquiring a signed ball can match the often illegible scrawl against the name, and he also suggested they write their squad number.

"I was coming up the tunnel to watch the warm-up before we played Nottingham Forest. A wee boy asked for my autograph. I went, 'Certainly, son'. And the boy said: 'What number are you?' "

Less flattering was the refrain from the stands at Millwall. However, as Brown observes with a hearty chuckle which confirms that mirth, unlike the Deepdale beat box, is not the exclusive preserve of his players, he will happily accept being called "a fat Scottish bastard". As he says, it invariably means Preston are winning.