It was more than the sheer volume of games that tickled Scott Brown when asked to consider whether the fact Celtic will play their 42nd game of the season – friendlies included – at Hamilton today meant they have crammed a season into five months.
“That’s not bad, is it? And I’ve managed to keep going...” the 31-year-old said with typically mischievous glee. The Celtic captain hasn’t just been keeping pace in the Brendan Rodgers revolution, though, he has effectively set that pace.
The renaissance of the midfielder has given the lie to the adage that says you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Last term, Brown seemed an ailing Rottweiler. Under Rodgers he has been transformed into a prime bloodhound.
“When you enjoy your football, you’re going to play better, run harder, feel stronger and feel good about yourself. It’s about how you feel inside,” the player said. “You do that extra work on your training ground and you look after your body. The gaffer has been huge on that and everyone has responded to it. He looks at every single stat. You can see how we’ve improved.”
Altogether different from when Brown started out on his professional career. “I was 17 with a red Mohawk. I didn’t listen of f***-all,” he admitted. “It was a wee bit different. You just ran and ran. We were at Hibs, we were training on council fields, wherever we could. We got told in the morning, given half an hour’s notice of where we were meant to be for training that day. The coaching staff had to quickly leave, go and set up the cones, check the pitch and all that. There was no GPS, no heart rate monitors.
“We wore them here last year – but we didn’t do the comparison we do now, looking at it from game to game to game. So now everything is compared.
“We’ve got ProZone all over the stadium so we know how many touches you’ve taken, how many tackles, how many aerial battles you’ve won. Everything is there in the stats. It’s become more and more Americanised as we’ve gone along.
“But it’s good, especially for young players coming through. If you know how many touches you’ve had, how often you keep it, how many times you give it away, that shows you what you need to work on. And it’s the best way to do it because the stats don’t lie.”
Deep into the club’s Champions League campaign, the stats told that Brown had the most completed passes of any British-based player. This the same Brown whose passing has so often been cited in the past as a weakness in his dervish-style game approach.
“Yeah, it was encouraging,” Brown said of the passing analysis. “The gaffer is huge on his players – especially in central midfield – keeping the ball and making passes. Whether those passes are ten yards or 25, as long as you keep the ball moving to a team-mate, you are doing not too bad.
“Most of my passes are back to big Craig [Gordon], right enough. The Champions League is hard because you need to win the battle but you get time to play the ball. Up here, everyone wants to run after you and smash you. It’s a different game.”
Playing on a plastic pitch as Celtic will do this lunchtime in Hamilton makes for a different game, too. “It’s horrible. Horrible,” said Brown of the artificial surface. “Hamilton is one of the worst. I don’t mind the Kilmarnock pitch. When it’s wet, you can move the ball and pass it quite well.”
Brown is open about any added complication of a game this afternoon in which Celtic will be seeking to post a 22nd game in this season-long domestic unbeaten run that has brought them 16 Premiership wins from 17 league outings. The absence of Tom Rogic to an ankle injury he is expected to shake off before Celtic face Ross County and Rangers next week, upsets the balance of Rodgers’ side, the Celtic captain believes.
“When Tom gets the ball on the half turn, he receives it so well and moves forward. To give Tom a ball when he’s on the pivot, he turns right away, his hips are moving and he’s going to play a forward pass, get you 30, 40 or 50 yards up the park. Sometimes, when he’s not there, it’s much harder for us.” Brown’s hips are moving freely enough to cope.