THERE was a time last season when it seemed as if John Brown had put more noses out of joint than a bare-knuckle boxer.
People didn’t get his humour, the Dundee manager petitions when we meet at Dens Park on Friday, his verbal jabs made with tongue firmly in cheek rather than designed to knock teeth out. “We should be laughing and enjoying it, not looking to get people slaughtered,” he says. “The SFA want to have a look at it and laugh too. I’ll make comments from time to time and they’ll get taken out of context to make a good headline to sell papers. Big deal.”
Yet, despite being all business as he prepares Dundee for a Championship campaign they are expected to romp, Brown can’t help striking a blow for his club, and himself, that is inevitably newsworthy and aimed to wind up a rival.
And all it takes for him to cut loose is a passing aside that elements of Dundee seem so unchangeable. There’s the mahogany entrance hall to the main stand entrance. There’s the fact that since 2005 his team have been in the second tier every season except last – a respite that only resulted from the demise of Rangers. And there is the fact that factionalism among fans and boardroom divisions are simmering away; the latest such episode of a recurring theme relating to American investment proposals that would end the majority shareholding of supporters, some of whom are attempting to fashion a local alternative with the assistance of former owner Peter Marr.
“Inside Dens never seems to have changed in the near 30 years I’ve been around the place,” Brown says. “Hardly anything’s changed at the club. I’ll tell you what I’d like to change, though, and that is the dominance in Dundee. This is what I am trying to start. I hope the investment proposals will be dealt with and we can make a new start and move forward – and who’s to say that in a year or two’s time Dundee will not be the big club in Dundee.”
Bold words from a man who will utter them to his final breath. “Life’s aboot telling the truth,” the 51-year-old says. “Some people don’t like to hear the truth, but I’ll always tell the truth. It might get me in trouble with the authorities, but I’ll always speak my mind and the day I go to my grave I’ll have done it giving my own opinion and not someone else’s.”
His truth is that Dundee are deservedly favourites to return to the top level as second tier champions. They may have lost 16 players – including such as Steven Simonsen, Gary Harkins, John Baird, Steven Milne and Mark Kerr – and signed only seven but have retained “most of the players we wanted to”, he says. These are players he felt showed they were top-flight standard after the ridicule they were receiving following his appointment in February was replaced with respect, earned as they came close to clawing back a 15-point deficit.
“I’m not saying the guys we had weren’t hungry, but we were a squad with many guys in their late 20s, early 30s and I have brought in younger boys who I hope can be the long-term future of the club,” Brown says. “It is going to take a good team to beat us. We’ll be a tough nut to crack. If any team finishes above us they will be champions. And if we have to go into play-offs to get up, play-offs that are stacked in favour of the Premier team, I would say: bring it on.”
Players have been recruited from unlikely sources. Forward Carlo Monti was plucked from Pollok juniors via a tip-off by a journalist, the 23-year-old having fallen out of the game amid discipline issues after being reared at Celtic and spending two seasons at Morton.
“I was working with Rangers’ youths when he was at Celtic, playing left-back, so I knew he had ability. Tommy Burns was a good friend of mine and he thought highly of him. Willie McStay was the coach and they could see promise. You don’t go to the Old Firm if you are not a good kid. He’s had a good grounding, but at 23, where is he now? I told him I wanted to see him in here and he immediately cancelled a holiday. I said to him, ‘we’ve ’aw done daft things in our life, myself included. I want to see you for three or four weeks, see your attitude doesn’t waver from day to day’. He came in, showed the ability he has, and will score a lot of goals for us.”
With the return of Gavin Rae, and Peter MacDonald arriving to join such as Matt Lockwood and Kevin McBride, Brown says he has a group of good, experienced pros that allow him to bring in the local youth with whom “the fans will identify”. The teenager generating most of the hype is forward Craig Wighton, who wasn’t able to play in the Ramsdens Cup win at Alloa last weekend because he didn’t turn 16 until the following day.
“He’s one of the best I’ve seen at that age. It’s all potential, but he trains with the first team regularly and he’s not out of place. He is a level-headed kid. He’ll fill out, but is touching six-foot the now and he’s got the full package. He will be involved this season and he will score goals.”
It might all sound sweetness and light at Dens, but Dundee wouldn’t be Dundee without some sort of feud or fissure. Agreement was expected to be reached in May on American-led Football Partners Scotland’s £650,000 investment proposal, supported financially and strategically by former directors Bill Colvin, Steve Martin and Ian Crichton. It wasn’t, because board members Dave Forbes and Fraser MacDonald, who represent Dundee Football Club Supporters Society at that level, do not appear comfortable with control of the club effectively going into the hands of Keyes Capital, the Texan investment firm run by John Keyes. A vote will be taken on the proposal by the supporters who control 51 per cent of the club on 13 August, with the local option involving Marr and the Dark Blue Business Trust somewhere in the background.
Brown is unequivocal in his support of the FPS buy-out, which he says would concentrate new funds on improving the club’s scouting and youth development network to raise the standard of players being brought through. And he is highly critical of the Trust attempts, as he sees it, to muddy the waters.
“It is one of those that brought the club down for years that is in with this Trust thing. I’m not interested in the Americans’ proposal because it will change my budget or whatever, I want it because it can change the club forever, for the better. Let’s get a new broom, let’s clear the decks and start again, let’s bring young players through a system Dundee haven’t had in years. The Americans are willing to give it a go. They are all about youth and if it works, it works. If not they will walk away. They want to give the club back to the fans and eventually buy the stadium so the fans can buy it back and own their own stadium.”
Yet wasn’t it Brown who stood on the steps of Ibrox and railed against businessmen with no previous links to Rangers looking to buy into the club he helped win nine consecutive titles? Why should the trust issue be different? “See when you can look into a guy’s eyes, if he looks at you or looks at the floor tells you whether he is a liar or not. This time the guy looked me in the eyes.”