THE tone was set from the start. New interim Dundee manager John Brown occupied a seat to the right of chief executive Scot Gardiner, two men who it is safe to say took a deep breath before they left their front doors yesterday.
It had already been a long weekend. Welcome to the start of a challenging week, one rounded off by the little matter of a Scottish Cup quarter-final against Dundee United. Much has been said about Brown, not all of it complimentary. However, he cannot be accused of lacking courage. He is not afraid to court ridicule, as he proved on the last occasion that he commanded an audience, at the top of those steps at Ibrox stadium, not very long ago.
“Anything I’ve done in life, you take responsibility for,” he said yesterday, as he faced reporters for the first time since being confirmed as Barry Smith’s controversial replacement. “There are things I’ve done that I regret but you know what, you live with that. You stand up and take one on the chin. I’m here to take one on the chin for Dundee Football Club.”
He met yesterday’s challenge head-on, as he always did when he was a player, for Dundee and Hamilton Academical as well as Rangers, the club he is, of course, now forever associated with. Brown sought to re-direct the focus to the time when he wore the dark, rather than light, blue. “I loved my team at Dundee in the mid-’80s, the fans were fantastic,” he recalled.
“There were great games – beating Hearts on the last day of the season when they were going for the title, Scottish Cup victories at Ibrox, turning over Celtic at Parkhead. There were great memories with great guys like Tosh McKinlay and Colin Hendry, guys who were coming through.”
As much as he is linked with the fortunes of Rangers now, he was once an arch-tormentor of the Ibrox side. He scored a hat-trick for Dundee in a 3-2 win over Rangers in November 1985. Earlier that same year he hit the winner in a 1-0 Scottish Cup victory at Ibrox, when Ally McCoist was given merciless treatment by his own fans. In those days, Brown was identifiable not just because of the red hair. He literally did roll up his sleeves. Even when he wore a short-sleeved shirt he used to roll up the sleeves still further. In as fine a Dundee side as there has been since the early Seventies, he was the beating heart. He conceded that a “lot of water has flowed under the bridge” since then.
There was a glint in Brown’s eye yesterday. He seemed to relish the attrition, playing games with journalists and in the case of one particular reporter, instigating some good-natured sparring. “Old-School?” he replied, after being asked about the perception that his coaching credentials were most earned in the school of hard-knocks. “Your barnet’s old school.”
“Old-school” was a phrase that was employed more than once in a near 40-minute briefing. “What is old-school?” he asked. “When Walter Smith offered me the under-18 job [at Rangers] he mentioned discipline. In Gordon Strachan’s first Scotland squad the starting XI had four guys who have the discipline we put into them when they left school: Allan McGregor, Alan Hutton, Charlie Adam and Chris Burke.”
Even yesterday, Brown had battle-hardened sports journalists falling into line. Normally on these occasions, those attending break off into their own factions; broadcast reporters, newspaper reporters and the like. Not here. Brown wanted it all out in the open; there would be no bespoke mini-press conferences.
“I’d rather get it all done here,” he said. “If you have anything to say, then this is your opportunity.” These words probably look more menacing in print. They were not designed to be threatening. Brown was simply itching to get on with the job he was hired to do. He was already attired in his Dundee FC training gear rather than suit. “He’ll make no apology for that,” said Gardiner.
The first reporter to accept the opportunity “to spit it out” wondered about Brown’s own response “to the reaction” that has met his appointment as interim manager. “What reaction is that?” replied Brown. He was asked, more specifically, about the negative response: “That is the position we are in in the league. The fans are unhappy and that all comes with the territory.”
Brown thanked Dundee for the opportunity to play Premier League football. He signed for the club from Hamilton. “Dundee, along with Hamilton and Rangers, I have a great affection for all three teams,” he said. “I can always say I always give it my best.”
Brown promised to “have a go” at avoiding relegation, though it is more realistic to imagine Dundee’s season being given a boost by an extended cup run. For this to happen, the Dens Park side must overcome United on Sunday. It’s not misrepresenting the situation to say that Brown has been hired to instil some blood and thunder in the dressing-room ahead of this game, above all others. Dundee’s campaign hinges on it.
In two competitive meetings already this season, Dundee trail 6-0 on aggregate. Brown scored a winner for Dundee at Tannadice shortly after signing for the club in 1984 and was a member of the side who defeated United in an epic League Cup quarter-final tie at Dens Park in 1987, in front of over 20,000 fans.
Brown politely declined the opportunity to look ahead to the game against United, since another derby clash, against St Johnstone tomorrow evening, has to be tackled first. However, he did then entertain the thought of leading Dundee out in a cup final in May. “That’s the carrot that’s there for the players,” he said. Brown acknowledged that those in the dressing-room were “hurting” after the sacking of his predecessor.
“They were all signed by the previous manager,” he said. “Barry is a legend of this club and what he did through administration and the 25-point deduction was remarkable but things happen and that is football. I was 18 years at Rangers and Paul Le Guen came in and I was out the door with no reason other than it was a new manager and it was time to move on.
“You are a number and that is it. I am in here to do the best I can for Dundee FC.”
He aimed a side-swipe at those who made derogative remarks about his own appointment on various radio shows on Saturday. “There are a lot of guys out there who have probably been critical about the appointment who’ve probably put their own CV in last week,” he said. “They are now saying it’s the wrong appointment, maybe because they didn’t get the opportunity. There’s a bitterness there.”
Brown wasn’t prepared to simply take it on the chin yesterday. He was fighting back.