GORDON Strachan has made the most telling decision of his short Scotland tenure by naming Scott Brown as captain ahead of the new international manager’s debut match against Estonia tonight.
There was little pomp and ceremony involved. Brown was sitting in the lobby of the team’s hotel on the outskirts of Aberdeen yesterday when Strachan walked by and delivered the news. “Gordon just came over to me, said ‘You’re captain’ and then walked away,” revealed Brown yesterday.
The Pittodrie fixture sees Strachan return to the ground where he established himself as an international-class midfielder and he has started to leave his imprint on the Scotland squad by promoting Brown in the absence of Gary Caldwell, who has returned to Wigan Athletic due to a hip injury. Asked whether Brown would be retained as captain when the World Cup qualifying campaign resumes next month, Strachan said: “That’s a different thing. We have to have a look at that.”
Caldwell stood third in line to captain Scotland under Craig Levein, behind the currently sidelined Darren Fletcher and Kenny Miller. “If Darren comes back, he will be captain again,” pointed out Strachan.
Miller, meanwhile, will earn his 66th cap if selected tonight, but the decision to hand Brown the captaincy suggests the Vancouver Whitecaps player will be one of a throng of 13 players on the bench, with Strachan permitted to use six substitutions this evening after an agreement struck with his opposite number, Tarmo Ruutli. Of the original 28-man squad, four have now returned to their club sides. Having seen the heavy pitch at Pittodrie, Strachan felt it made more sense for Celtic winger James Forrest to sit out as he continues his recovery from a hamstring strain. Ross McCormack has returned to Leeds United due to illness and Grant Hanley is now back at Blackburn Rovers.
Strachan revealed all those not starting will be stripped and ready to play, if called upon. He had not yet finalised his starting XI yesterday and was preparing to sleep on the decision about who to play in one of the striker positions and two midfield berths. Again, this hints at a crowd-pleasing decision to play two forwards, something Levein, his predecessor, was criticised for not doing often enough.
It is clear that he wishes to build the team around Brown, who he brought to Celtic from Hibernian in 2007 for a record fee between two Scottish clubs of £4.4 million. “He was always a terrific player, that’s why we bought him from Hibs,” he said. “You just need to learn that there is a natural thing there; you just have to let him go sometimes. He does things not out of the training manual. It is athletic ability and a big heart. Sometimes you just have to let that go.”
Strachan never made him captain at Celtic, however. Tony Mowbray was the manager who handed Brown the skipper’s armband at Celtic, one he was worn since. Strachan has watched him mature as a player, if not as a person. “He will never mature,” the manager smiled yesterday. He recalled an incident in a hotel with Steven Pressley when the pair were at Celtic together that the latter still “hasn’t fully recovered from”.
But Strachan has observed Brown’s way with people and sees his infectious enthusiasm as being something that can be employed to Scotland’s advantage, although he accepts the combative midfielder is a much less likeable person on the field. “Scott is good with people, if you actually know him,” said Strachan. “I don’t think anybody has met him who would fall out with him.”
“I looked round this morning, Scott wasn’t training but he was talking to everyone at the Aberdeen sports centre and they loved his company. Everybody who meets him thinks he’s fantastic. Scott can’t stop. We said to him you can’t train indoors, just have a rest today but he said ‘no, no’ then went away running down the beach somewhere. That’s the way he is. It’s just if you meet him on the pitch he becomes a different person.”
This mean streak is another Brown characteristic that Strachan regards as a quality. However, he also watched as the midfielder played on throughout a difficult time at Celtic, when his sister, Fiona, died from skin cancer in 2008, aged just 21. “You see what you see on the TV and he won’t be a lot of people’s best friend, from watching him on TV,” said Strachan. “I think a lot of people are like that when they play football. But I hope in life you are judged upon what you are as a person and as a person he is different class. He has never had a problem with anybody I know who has worked round about him and he has had a lot to deal with in his life, on and off the field.”
Strachan drew similarities between Brown and Neil Lennon, his current manager at Celtic. “He is mentally strong,” he said. “He’s a bit like Lenny that way. Whatever goes on around him doesn’t affect what he is meant to be doing as a football player.”
The manager also recognised that Roy Keane and Brown share some of the same traits. “There was a devil inside Roy but Alex [Ferguson] always picked him,” he said.