Seven and on up for Brown

World Cup 2002: Europe's longest-serving national coach is desperate to leave Euro 2000 in the past
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The Independent Online

Craig Brown is like the man who has spent his entire working life in one office. Too long to enjoy the company of his contemporaries, barely known by the younger colleagues who attend his leaving do.

Craig Brown is like the man who has spent his entire working life in one office. Too long to enjoy the company of his contemporaries, barely known by the younger colleagues who attend his leaving do.

Europe's longest-serving national coach has no intention of taking his gold watch and clocking off just yet; however, on Saturday Brown will receive a jarring reminder of his venerable status in international football's constantly changing picture as Scotland embark on yet another quest to reach the World Cup finals.

In the opposite dug-out, in the Skonto Stadium in Riga, will be a man who was only in his mid-20s when Brown took the Scotland job from Andy Roxburgh seven years ago. Gary Johnson, just 33, once in charge of Watford's youth academy and now the national coach of Latvia, could offer no greater contrast to Brown.

Few of the Scot's contemporaries have survived the managerial cull at international level. His great friend Berti Vogts, whom he had got to know when both were in charge of their respective Under-21 sides, was thrown on to the dole after Germany succumbed to Croatia in the 1998 World Cup quarter-finals in France.

The departures of Frank Rijkaard and Dino Zoff after Euro 2000, after reaching the semi-finals and final respectively, make Brown's act of escapology almost worthy of a special medal. To put things into perspective, Zoff was the third coach used by Italy since Brown made his own baptism in Rome's Olympic Stadium in a 3-1 defeat in a World Cup qualifying tie in 1993.

That failure to reach USA 94 went down on Roxburgh's CV and was the only time in the last seven tournaments that Scotland have not been involved in the World Cup finals. It is something the amiable Brown is not keen to repeat, as he searches for the vital opening win in Latvia which would provide some optimism in a group which includes tough tests in the shape of Belgium and Croatia.

How do players respond to the hangover of not qualifying for Euro 2000, Brown was asked on Friday as he announced his squad for Riga. "I don't know," he replied. "I have never been in that position as Scotland coach. That was the first tournament [after Euro 96, France 98] that I have not been involved in.

"I know how I felt. I wanted to atone for the disappointment and I am sure the players do too. Scotland have a special record in reaching the World Cup finals and we want to continue it."

Brown's hardest times came after the 2-0 defeat by England in the Euro 2000 play-off, when sections of the press demanded his dismissal. Yet, ironically, his stock is probably now higher than that of Kevin Keegan, a mere rookie on the international scene. The 1-0 defeat of England at Wembley, followed by friendlies in which his side attained a fine draw in Holland and beat the Republic of Ireland 2-1 in Dublin, has lifted Scotland to No 20 in the Fifa rankings.

"That's the highest I've ever been," he reflected, "and to be in the top 10 per cent is a good achievement for a country like ours." It's hard to think what Brown would do with his time if he were pensioned off. Probably watch more football.

That was how he and Arsÿne Wenger came to be together at one of Latvia's recent games, Brown doing his homework on the Englishman Johnson's side and Wenger likewise on Andrei Rubins, a winger, and the defender Igor Stepanov, whom the Arsenal manager is keen to bring to Highbury.

The impressive relocation of Marian Pahars in the Premiership has coaxed others into following Southampton's example and not dismissing the Latvians as simply a chip off the sterile old Soviet block.

"They are a good side," cautioned Brown, who wishes to dispel the notion that the Latvians will be as easy opponents as they were when Scotland won home and away en route to the World Cup finals in 1998.

"They have improved a lot in four years," said Brown. "Obviously Pahars is an excellent player, which television keeps reminding you when they show his nutmeg on Jaap Staam while playing for Southampton against Manchester United.

"But Rubins and Stepanov, whom Arsÿne is interested in, are maturing too. I saw them beat Finland, who had Sammi Hyppia and Jari Litmanen playing, and they beat Norway in the European Championship qualifying group, so that shows that they are a dangerous side, which Gary Johnson keeps in a strict 4-4-2 unit."

Brown's own system has undergone a change in the last year. Gone is the 3-5-2 model he copied from the Germans and in its place a more fluid, attacking 3-4-3 formation which relies upon the movement of Neil McCann and Billy Dodds and the vision of Don Hutchison.

"In the old system, we could not accommodate McCann, but we can now and he showed at Wembley that he's an excellent provider of the ball. He's become a key player. Dodds we simply want to wrap in cotton wool, he's so impressive right now.

"We've lost John Collins since Wembley but regained Paul Lambert, and got Matt Elliott. I would say this is a stronger squad than the one which beat England."

However, he knows that victory in Riga is essential. "Few teams qualify on the back of losing their first game," he said. "It helps that our two rivals, Croatia and Belgium, meet next Saturday, so something will have to give there. We have three away games first and I'm looking for seven points."

Gary Johnson may just find there is life yet in the oldcampaigner.

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