THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; So what do the cognoscenti know ?

Derided by some critics for his modest football background, the Scotland manager has a better record than many of his more illustrious predecessors. And, as he tells Phil Shaw, his team are capable of teaching England a lesson
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Shankly was wrong. Sacrilegious as that seldom-heard statement may sound, the most momentous week of Craig Brown's life will culminate with an occasion to demonstrate its veracity.

During a previous incarnation as a young half-back already released by Rangers, the closest Brown seemed likely to come to international football was following Scotland from the terraces. His manager at Dundee, the late Bob Shankly, told him as much in a manner reminiscent of his brother, Bill.

"Bob used to say to me: `Son, you'll never be at Wembley unless you're wearing a tammie'," Brown recalls. But the ticketless trek to London in a tartan bonnet is long gone. The 55-year-old once dubbed "Bleeper" (after a Soviet satellite which transmitted "bleep" signals: he was renowned for sending the ball skyward) will be a "supporter on the bench" when Scotland re-enter England's orbit on Saturday.

So firmly has the Scottish public focused on the renewal of the game's oldest rivalry that the manager has been busy reminding his squad of the need to peak three times, not once, in Group A. The "big picture", as Brown terms it, starts today against the Netherlands at Villa Park. They meet Switzerland at the same venue three days after Wembley.

Scotland have never reached the second phase of any major finals. The draw has pitted their unfancied, goal-shy team against the host nation and the 1988 champions, not to mention a country who embarrassed them in the last World Cup. Surely they have no chance of breaking the mould?

"It's a realistic ambition, difficult but within the bounds of possibility," Brown insists. "If all 16 teams were in a league, we'd struggle. But in a small league, with a wee break, we could come through. And with our support we could give anyone a game in a one-off situation."

That is as close as he comes to banging the drum in the manner made famous (as in famous last words) by his Ayrshire neighbour, Ally MacLeod. Brown, like Andy Roxburgh before him, is inclined to err on the side of preparation and attention to detail. He spends hours each week studying videos or scouts' reports and drives 40,000 miles a year to watch matches.

"The cognoscenti", as he witheringly characterises his critics, trace the trait from the time he spent as a teacher after injury curtailed his playing career at Falkirk. They bemoan "the era of the schoolmaster" (Roxburgh's CV includes an identical detour) and allege that Brown lacks the charisma of a "real" manager like Alex Ferguson (one-time shipyard apprentice) or Jock Stein (ex-miner).

"The last time I taught in a school class was in 1969. I've been in football management 22 years now, so there's inverted snobbery there. The impression is created that I never played the game, whereas I had a championship medal at 21 with Dundee.

"As for me not being an international, Arrigo Sacchi [Italy's coach] didn't even play professionally." Ferguson and Stein, whose achievements he reveres, never represented Scotland either.

Brown can appear over-sensitive to the jibes of scribes but has no need to be defensive. Judged on competitive games, his record compares favourably with his most fabled predecessors. "We've only qualified twice out of 10 European Championship finals," he says with a sardonic smile, "and each time the manager has been an ex-teacher who hadn't a clue."

Beating the Faroe Islands and San Marino is all very well, his detractors say, but won't Brown be out of his depth in the finals? "I'm fortunate enough to have been taken to Mexico by Fergie in 1986. I was Andy Roxburgh's assistant in Italy in '90 and in Sweden in '92. I also took our Under- 16s to the World Cup final and the Under-21s to third place in Europe, so I feel I'm vastly experienced in tournament play."

Some pundits accuse Brown's Scotland of betraying the legacy of flair players like Baxter, Bremner, Law and Johnstone. They harp back to an age when Scotland's finest were a greater menace to sobriety than to European football society, and deride his emphasis on planning as if it were some alien, Ramseyesque quality.

"That's meant as a criticism but I regard it as a tribute. We'll win nothing with claymores and bagpipes or launching the ball long hoping to get a flick-on. With our slender resources, made worse by the way league football in Britain abuses players, we have to be organised or we've no chance. I can honestly say there wasn't one occasion in the qualifying group when I thought we'd made a mistake."

Brown does own up to errors of judgement in April's friendly defeat in Denmark, after which he was quoted as calling Scotland a team of limited ability. "What I actually said was that we know our limitations. We've no one playing abroad until John Collins goes to Monaco and no one with the top six clubs in England.

"Gary McAllister is arguably the one exception to all that, a player with magnificent technique, though even he's not spoken of in the way that Souness or Dalglish were."

McAllister, stand-in captain for Roxburgh's swansong, has worn the armband full-time under Brown. The Leeds playmaker's elevation to the role of midfield fulcrum is one of several differences between the regimes, the principal one being the latter's adoption of a 3-5-2 system.

"I'd used it in the Under-21s because I felt it suited the players. So I changed the national team straight away, which some people wrongly construed as an insult to Andy. A back four is undoubtedly the best defensive system. But you need time to organise it properly, which you don't get in international footbal. I heard Carlos Alberto Parreira, Brazil's World Cup-winning manager, say he'd had 41 days working on his back four. We usually have two or three days at most."

There are other instances of the new "Broon" sweeping clean. "I probably have fewer meetings, that are shorter and less intense, though I won't stand for anyone not doing as he's told. Andy was very guarded and didn't let the players out of his sight for long. I'm not naively trusting them, but I do believe players can be left and not meet quite so regularly."

Yet, like Roxburgh in his final months, he resolutely ignores Richard Gough. To the bewilderment of Rangers fans and what Brown dismisses as "a few papers on slack news days", the former captain has not appeared since a 5-0 capitulation in Portugal three years ago. The form of the Colins, Hendry and Calderwood, both previously uncapped, means he has hardly been missed.

"I took all the relevant factors into consideration and decided to leave Richard out. If he is the best central defender, as some people contend, I'd point out that the best 11 individuals in a country don't necessarily make the best team."

True to character, Brown uses statistics to underscore his conviction that Gough is anything but indispensable. "The basic fact is that he played 35 times for Scotland, of which we won 11," he says. "We won 11 of my first 18 in charge."

That record was tarnished last month by further away defeats against the United States and Colombia. Brown would prefer posterity to judge him less on the friendlies than by the hostilities, as it were, commencing against a Dutch team who have beaten the Scots twice in his reign.

"The main thing that came out of those games was that there's no way the new team are in the class of the team of Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard and Koeman. Also, Danny Blind is suspended and Frank de Boer is out because of injury, which is a plus for us, though we're not gloating.

"I've watched every one of their group matches on tape and seen every goal Ajax scored last season. So I know how brilliant they can be, but I'll also be telling our boys how fallible they were in losing to Belarus and the Czech Republic."

And England? "It'll be a fiercely contested game but it could be a tactical battle too. I consider Terry Venables to be very, very astute in that respect. We've got a player in common, Steve Archibald, who I had at Clyde and Terry had at Barcelona. Stevie regards him as a genius. When I asked him exactly what he meant by that, he explained that it was all down to detail and planning."

While Brown expects managerial solidarity and mutual respect to survive the showdown, he will make no apologies if urbanity gives way to a patriotism he portrays as an "intense loyalty rather than crude nationalism".

As he strides to the dug-out, he might recall Bob Shankly's genial put- down. He will certainly feel the pride of being Scottish rather than British. "The comedian Andy Cameron used to ask his audience: `Anyone here from England?' Someone would shout `yes' and he'd say: `Welcome to Britain'."

Scots often posed the same question in the days when the tartan army annexed Wembley and Brown wore the tammie. This weekend may not be quite that way, although for the schoolmaster turned manager it promises to be an education.