AS a veteran of 19 Old Firm games and almost 40 Champions League fixtures for Celtic, Scott Brown is better placed than most to assess the level of intensity which has surrounded the build-up to tonight’s Euro 2016 qualifier at his home stadium.
It is almost an instinctive part of a top-flight footballer’s lexicon to describe a match as “massive” or “huge” when facing the media beforehand.
But there was certainly nothing glib about Brown’s analysis as the Celtic captain tried to place the crucial Group D showdown against Republic of Ireland into some kind of personal context.
For the 29-year-old midfielder, who is set to captain his country for the 12th time this evening as he wins his 41st cap, this is as significant as any 90 minutes of his career at Celtic Park and has reminded him of how he felt in the days leading up to a clash with Rangers.
“It’s definitely going to be like that,” said Brown. “Ireland are going to try to come for us in the first ten or 15 minutes, especially at our ground.
“It is as big as any game I’ve played at Celtic Park or in my international career so far. It is going to be huge and a great occasion. I think it is going to be about 95 per cent Scotland fans in the stadium and it is going to be a great atmosphere.
“Both teams have got great players, great managers, and everyone knows what it’s going to be like. I think this will be different from a lot of international games. It’s going to start off at 110 miles an hour, especially with the bulk of 60,000 fans getting behind us – that great atmosphere will push us on.
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“As a player, you need to handle that. You’ve just got to relax and not let the whole Scotland-Ireland, Rangers-Celtic, whatever it is, get to you. You have to focus on your own game.
“I have learned that over the years in these games. Everyone’s first one, you focus on trying to win the battle and stuff like that. But it’s a different occasion for us, playing Ireland on home soil at Celtic Park. We’ve got players who’ve all been in big games before, who all know what it’s about. They’ll get the ball down and pass it, get it forward.”
Although fairly relaxed during yesterday’s media duties at Scotland’s Renfrewshire base, Brown’s trademark glare did surface when he was asked about his former Celtic team-mate Aiden McGeady’s anticipated hostile reception from the home fans when he lines up for the Irish tonight.
“Let’s keep it about football,” was Brown’s truculent response. “It has all been about Aiden and Roy Keane and stuff but let’s just talk about the game.”
It is a game which, in keeping with what seems to have been a prescribed message among the Scotland coaching staff and players this week, Brown says he does not regard as one in which the hosts have to prevail in a qualifying group which has seen both Poland and the Irish steal an early advantage by unexpectedly taking points from top seeds and world champions Germany.
“I’m not sure it’s a must-win game but we’d like to win it,” said Brown. “There are still a lot of games to go, so you never know what can happen. Every game in these Euros now is big for us. We need to try to keep going the way we are going. We’ve been playing quite well recently and we need to try and keep it as positive as possible, keep going forward, creating chances and see what we can do. The movement we have had up front has been good and, hopefully, we can keep that going too.
“It is going to be a tight group. It is going to go all the way. We are taking every game as it comes but every game is a huge game. People say it doesn’t matter about Gibraltar but they are all huge games for us.
“We have got a strong team. I keep saying this, but you look in that dressing room and you think any one of the 23 or 24 man squad could play easily. Training has been great this week and we have had 11 v 11, making subs and putting players on in positions and it has been going really well. It has been good to see all the lads and know that you can trust them as well.”
Brown also believes that Scotland’s new-found confidence under Gordon Strachan leaves them well-equipped to cope with any setbacks they might experience in the opening stages tonight.
“I think all good teams need to try to be like that,” he said. “You can’t beat yourself up when something goes wrong – you have to push on and be positive, try to get back in it.
“Everyone in that dressing room works so hard and we believe that, if we do go a goal down, we can score a couple and get back on top. We’ve got the players who can do that, guys like Shaun Maloney and Ikechi Anya, who are scoring goals from nothing. From one or two attacks, we can score.
“It didn’t feel like that six or seven months ago. Now we’re creating those chances and putting them in the back of the net. The manager knows the way we want to play – and we know what he wants, to keep going for 90 minutes and doing what he wants. We believe that, if we follow what he wants, we’ve got a great chance. We believe in the manager and he believes in us.”
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