CRAIG Brown has been meandering down memory lane. As he settles down in the club canteen to focus on current matters, he reveals that Scotland coach Gordon Strachan had popped round to Pittodrie after naming his international squad and the manager’s office had been transformed into a den of reminiscence, by Strachan, Brown and his assistant, Archie Knox.
It’s the kind of thing that energises Brown. Football chatter, football tales and the camaraderie the game offers. The stories of success also fire his desire to ensure this season has some tangible reward. The league is an ongoing project, the cup, though, is the primary focus this weekend.
The triumphs of a bygone era still stalk the corridors at Pittodrie. Like a hypnotic, pint-supping raconteur they still hold audiences at the ground and in the city captive. This club is prisoner to the past but they are hoping for a brighter future. As Brown prepares his team for the second match-up with Hibernian in the space of a week, he knows what is at stake.
Ask him for his favourite Scottish Cup memories and it’s clear he is looking for some retribution. It’s also clear that the competition has not served up the truly glittering moment most football people dream of. Not yet, anyway.
“We made it to the semi-finals in the last two seasons but I wouldn’t say they were my favourite memories,” says the man whose future at the club has been the source of great speculation but who has undoubtedly fulfilled his remit on constant improvement. “We lost to Celtic in the first one and there wasn’t much we could have done about that one. But losing to Hibs last season still bothers me, I still think we were robbed, so they are not my favourite Scottish Cup memories.”
The margins between success and failure are miniscule. The assistant referee’s flag stayed down at a key point in that game, as James McPake picked out Garry O’Connor and, while his subsequent ball through to Griffiths is praised by the former Scotland boss, the fact O’Connor was able to play it without censure still grates. The decision cost the Dons a place in the final.
“When I was at Dundee they were in the final, against Rangers, but they lost. That was in 1964. But that’s not my favourite Scottish Cup memory either. And when I was at Clyde, I nearly got John Greig the sack because we drew with Rangers at Shawfield. We were the league below and part-time and their fans wanted him out after that one but they beat us in the replay with two late goals at Ibrox. But that’s not my favourite. My favourite is one to do with Aberdeen and it’s not glamorous, it’s humorous. I was at Clyde, in 1984 and Aberdeen had won the Cup-Winners’ Cup the previous season and were flying high. I don’t remember what round it was but it was early because we were still in it!
“We trained at night and it was the Thursday before the game and I remember Northsound phoning me to do an interview and they had my friend Alex [Ferguson] in the studio. Now, I knew that they didn’t like the Dunlop footballs because Jim Leighton had shipped a goal, I think against Celtic, and Alex had blamed the ball, saying it didn’t fly right. So when I knew we were playing Aberdeen I phoned up Andy Roxburgh at the SFA to borrow four of them. At the end of the interview they asked if I had any last message for my old pal Alex, I said ‘yes, tell him we’re playing with a Dunlop ball and we haven’t rolled the pitch for three weeks’. Well, you could almost hear him swearing at the other end and the guy had to cut his mic. I put the phone down and about three minutes later it rang again. ‘See you, ya b******, you f****** better no be playing with a Dunlop!’ It was Alex and he was seriously angry. But I just calmly said: ‘We are and I’ll tell you something else, we are not rolling that pitch so Strachan and Black and McGhee can run rings round my players!’ and I hung up.
“Then, on the morning of the game, I was in my office at Shawfield around 11am and the game wasn’t until three but in walks Alex’s assistant Willie Garner who had been sent along to see the pitch and see if I had been playing up with him. I just smiled and said ‘go ahead have a look’ and he did and we hadn’t rolled it, it was like a ploughed field. You should have seen his face! In the end Aberdeen beat us 2-0 but after the match I just said to Alex, ‘Imagine how many more it might have been it we had rolled it and hadn’t played with the Dunlops!’”
Finding a way to gain an edge over Hibs will be necessary today. Brown was at Motherwell when they drew 6-6 with the Easter Road side but, since coming to Aberdeen, the match-ups with the capital side have been dominated by defences. The past eight meetings have served up nothing more momentous than a 2-1, the majority being either 1-0 or 0-0. It shows how little separates the sides. There are only two points between them in the league and Brown knows that gap should have been wiped out last weekend at Easter Road when Aberdeen dominated but failed to capitalise, even missing a penalty.
There are parallels between the clubs. Both were languishing at the wrong end of the table when their current managers took control, both have seen players coming and going as teams were disassembled and then rebuilt, both have reaped the benefits of such shake-ups, both challenging for the league lead earlier in the season. They have slipped back slightly but are still exceeding expectations given where they were in recent times.
It gives both cause to believe that they can triumph this afternoon. But while Hibs’ wait for Scottish Cup glory is more lengthy, the desire to end the drought burns just as brightly at Pittodrie, where the trophy cabinet has not been unlocked since 1995 and a final not reached since 2000.
“I’m hoping my best memories in the cup have yet to come. I would love to get past Hibs and eventually take this club to a final and win the trophy,” says Brown. “I would love to do that for the city, for the club and I would like to do it for ourselves because I know how much it would mean to everyone.
“Archie and I stayed in a hotel when we first came up here and we left every day about 8.30 to get in here and the kids were going to school and nearly every morning we were stopped by the lollipop man letting the kids over the road. But one day there were no kids but he still walked on to the road with his lollipop. Archie was driving and getting angry and tooting and shouting at the lollipop man who came towards the car, his lollipop stick across the front of the car so we couldn’t drive off and as Archie wound down the window to demand to know why we have been stopped he said: ‘I just stopped you to wish you both all the best!’ So there is a tangible feeling of goodwill towards this team.
“I go back to what Jimmy Calderwood always said. If Aberdeen win the cup the whole city is happy, when Dundee United won the cup half the city was p***ed off. That’s the same if Celtic win it, half of Glasgow isn’t happy and last season we saw it is the same in Edinburgh, half the city turned out to celebrate, the other half wasn’t happy. But, if Aberdeen win, the whole north-east would turn out. I would love my legacy here to be a cup win. I don’t know how long we will get to do that.”
That remains the hot topic for conversation, engrossing all except Brown, it seems. He is thoroughly fed up with it. Bored with the speculation, well and truly over the interest in his age and annoyed that any contract talks have moved into the public domain.
He insists he does not feel under threat and believes that the situation has been blown out of all proportion. Like most of the country, he has read that the club want someone younger, that his assistant manager Archie Knox is retiring, that he is moving into the role of director of football and that Ross County’s Derek Adams has been lined up to succeed him next season.
He denies it all. He hasn’t spoken with the chairman yet but isn’t perturbed by that. He won’t go chapping on doors and he doesn’t have an agent to do that for him but he does believe that, if a succession plan was being drawn up, he would be part of the process. And Knox has made no mention of walking away.
“I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but I think progress has been made. Maybe not as dramatic as it might have seemed it might be earlier in the season but maybe it is difficult to please people here. We are the only club other than Celtic in the last two years who have been three times in the semi-finals of the two main cup competitions.”
He wants to go a step further. Actually he wants to go two steps further. He wants silverware and he wants to join his mate Alex Ferguson among the names who have delivered silverware to Pittodrie and smiles to the city of Aberdeen. Forget what’s on his birth certificate, that desire keeps him young.