CRAIG BROWN says Scotland’s chances of victory in tomorrow’s crucial qualifying clash against Republic of Ireland have been improved by a choice of venue he remembers even Rangers players preferring during his time as international manager.
The former Scotland coach has happy memories of Celtic Park since it is where he led the international side to the World Cup finals with a 2-0 win over Latvia in October 1997. While some have questioned the choice of a stadium that is so well known to several members of the Irish camp, Brown is sure the benefits will outweigh any perceived negatives.
While admitting that he would prefer Hampden Park to remain Scottish football’s HQ, he also questioned its long-term viability as the national stadium. His preference is for it to be re-built and made “more like Celtic Park”.
If this is not realistic, and with the current lease at a stadium owned by Queen’s Park set to expire in 2020, Brown would be comfortable with taking international matches all over the country, as tends to happen in Germany and Spain.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
“If you have unlimited money you rebuild it [Hampden] and keep it on the same site, rejig it,” he said. “If not, you might have to compromise and start sharing the internationals around and make everyone scramble for tickets.”
A sold-out ground for tomorrow’s Group D clash has justified the Scottish Football Association’s decision to opt for the larger capacity of Celtic Park over Ibrox, with Hampden still out of commission following the Commonwealth Games.
Brown, the last man to lead Scotland to a major finals, is as excited as anyone by the prospect. He said: “Ireland, Martin O’Neill and Celtic Park – if you were writing a script for Roy of the Rovers this would make a great story.
“It’s fantastic, it could be one of the all-time classic international matches.”
Scotland’s progress to France ’98 was aided by two victories at the ground. Qualification was confirmed courtesy of a 2-0 win over Latvia in the east end of Glasgow and the Scots also overcame Austria by the same scoreline at Celtic Park. Indeed, Scotland won all their home fixtures in that last successful qualifying campaign, none of which were played at Hampden.
Brown revealed yesterday that several players preferred to play at Celtic Park or Ibrox rather than Hampden, with Celtic’s stadium a particular favourite – even among Rangers players.
“I don’t want to get into trouble with the SFA but the players seemed to prefer to play at Celtic Park and Ibrox when Hampden was being refurbished, Tynecastle and Aberdeen too,” he said.
“There was a feeling among the players that Celtic Park in particular was a favourite. If I’m honest, even the guys from across the city loved to play at Celtic Park – it was enclosed, the fans are on top of you, the atmosphere is great and it’s intimidating for the opposition.”
Hampden Park is thought by many to have lost its intimidating properties over the years. Its refurbishment in the 1990s included the rebuilding of the south stand and the installation of seats on the sloping terraces. But the stands remain a long way from the pitch meaning the once famed Hampden roar is now rarely heard. Visiting teams appear to enjoy rather than fear playing there.
“I don’t want to fall out with the SFA,” reiterated Brown. “Hampden Park is the spiritual home of Scottish football. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, they didn’t rebuild it as well as they could have.
“On the same site, it would have cost a lot more money – but they could have built a really intimidating stadium.
“It still is intimidating because the crowd is good, the crowd is vociferous. But it’s not claustrophobic, with the crowd right on top of you. Celtic Park is far better.
“I wouldn’t want to condemn Hampden because we’ve had some great occasions there,” he added. “The pitch has always been top class but the atmosphere… now, after the improvements at Celtic Park, in terms of car parking and access, things like that, it’s just a better venue.”
Brown’s words carry an authority that means they are hard to dismiss. Now a director at Aberdeen, he remains heavily involved in football. Brown is aware of the difficult situation presented by the preference for a venue that is completely neutral given the historic dominance of Celtic and Rangers in Scottish football.
However, Brown wonders whether the game might not now be in a healthier state had funds been channelled into grassroots football rather than used to refurbish a stadium that continues to have its critics.
“I don’t want to sound as if I’m slamming the SFA or saying that the money used for Hampden could have gone into youth development, but there’s an argument for it,” he said. “Go to Italy, they don’t have a national stadium, they play in Rome, Milan, Naples. Spain is the same.
“We could have done that. But, you see, there is this problem of neutrality in Scotland.
“It is an issue when it comes to cup finals and the Old Firm are involved – you want a neutral stadium, for sure. So you can see the reason. But, if I had unlimited funding, I would have kept Hampden and rebuilt it to be more like Celtic Park.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS