AS A player returning to face one of his former clubs, Celtic captain Scott Brown has always been gratified by the reception he gets at Easter Road.
It is almost seven years since he left Hibs, scoring in his final match for the club as they beat Celtic 2-1 – Brown’s former Easter Road team-mate Derek Riordan opening the scoring for the Glasgow side, Brown levelling, and Ivan Sproule netting a late winner.
The midfielder has not always been renowned for keeping his emotions or temper in check and he now reflects on how his conduct that afternoon could easily have provoked a less positive reaction from both sets of fans.
“I remember it well,” said Brown as he prepares for tomorrow’s Premiership showdown in Leith. “Because during the game, I got into an argument with Darren O’Dea who was playing for Celtic that day. I was giving as good as I got, to be fair, and he was saying he would see me to sort things out at the start of the next season when I went to Celtic.
“About five minutes later, I went up the park and scored. The first thing that went through my mind was to run straight up to Darren and let him know. But then I realised that all of the fans were cheering me – not just Hibs fans, but Celtic fans too.
“I suddenly didn’t know how to celebrate the goal or whether I even should. I didn’t want to upset either set of fans! Both sets were excellent that day and hopefully it’s the same again on Sunday.
“I always look forward to playing at Easter Road. It’s a good stadium, although I’m not too sure how the pitch is right now, but it’s always nice to go back where I first started. The Hibs fans have always been good with me. Maybe on the first couple of games back I had a few shouts aimed at me. But I still live in Edinburgh and speak to Hibs fans when I meet them. They’re always friendly.”
Brown is wary of the potential threat posed by Hibs under Terry Butcher as Celtic look to maintain their unbeaten record in the Premiership this season.
“Terry seems to be doing not too badly, apart from last week’s defeat at home to St Mirren,” he added. “His teams always work defences really well, they try to play in the opposition half rather than passing the ball out from the back. We know what to expect and we know how to deal with it. Hibs will want to take our scalp, as every team does just now, because we’re on a great run. Our lads are doing really well, we’re scoring goals now and playing nice fluent football. Obviously teams want to beat us but whether they do it or not is a different story. We just want to continue our run as long as possible. It’s the same with our clean sheets as well.
“If we can keep that going as well it shows what a good team we’re building in the dressing room. These things help motivate us but we have that anyway when we go out to play. Remaining unbeaten is going to be really hard, but it’s about the whole squad taking a turn. I believe we can do it, but we need to take one game at a time.”
Brown, meanwhile, gave a dismissive response to Rangers captain Lee McCulloch’s claim that there is little difference in the standard of football between the Premiership and League 1.
“I’ve never played in League 1,” shrugged Brown. “But I’m not going to say it’s as good as the Premiership is.
“The fitness levels for a start are going to be a lot higher in the Premiership. Players on the ball will be a lot different too. I know players have come through from League One and Two and done the business really well in the Premiership. But it’s always going to be hard for those teams to cope if a couple of them came into the Premiership.”
Brown’s view was echoed by Celtic manager Neil Lennon who believes the evidence is clear this season that there is a distinct difference in quality between the divisions.
“Queen of the South won what is now League One convincingly last year but have struggled in the Championship this year,” observed Lennon. “So there’s obviously a gulf between League One and the Championship. Partick Thistle have come up to the top flight this year and I wouldn’t say they’ve had a brilliant season. They’ve found it difficult. So there’s another gulf between the Championship and the Premiership. So I would disagree [with McCulloch] entirely. But I wouldn’t know as I’ve never worked or managed in League One.”
Lennon could hand a debut to recent £2 million signing Stefan Johansen tomorrow, although the Norwegian midfielder may have to settle for a place on the substitutes’ bench initially. James Forrest is rated doubtful because of a groin strain, but Dutch winger Derk Boerrigter is available again after a foot problem.
“I’m looking forward to Sunday,” said Lennon. “There will be a good crowd and I was surprised last week with Hibs’ result. They were on a decent run after Terry came in and I expected them to beat St Mirren at home. I see Terry has said he’s looking for a response from his players – and I suppose every game we go into now, the opposition will want to be the team who takes our scalp.
“So there’s plenty of challenges and motivation for us. We’re playing well, scoring goals and keeping clean sheets – but I’m always looking for improvement.”