He took charge of Scotland for 70 internationals, and managed them for four full qualifying campaigns after replacing Andy Roxburgh near the end of the failed attempt to reach the World Cup finals in 1994.
While Craig Brown experienced plenty of heartbreaking and frustrating moments in his time as an international manager, there is one result that has haunted him: Scotland 2 Belgium 2.
“That was the killer game. Of all the qualifying games I have been involved with, that is the one that annoyed me,” he said yesterday. And little wonder. Scotland had been two goals to the fore and cruising on that ill-fated afternoon at Hampden in March 2001.
A double by Billy Dodds put Scotland 2-0 up within 30 minutes. Better still, one of these goals had been scored from the penalty spot, following a handball offence, committed by Eric Deflandre,which led to the defender being sent off.
What better place to be than 2-0 up at home against opponents who have been reduced to ten men? Of course, Scotland being Scotland, this was never likely to prove a comfortable position. The Belgians pulled one back shortly after half-time. If you can’t recall the rest, you can imagine how it ended. Belgium equalised with a goal at the death. The loss of two valuable points ultimately cost Scotland a place at the World Cup finals in Japan and Korea, and ruined Brown’s hopes of a perfect send-off in the Far East.
Afterwards, Brown was full of regret. Dodds had performed heroically and had very nearly become the first Scotland player in 32 years to score a hat-trick. He was replaced by Kevin Gallacher a minute before the end of normal time with Scotland leading 2-1. Brown remains furious with himself for not using his other two substitutions, if only to disrupt the match’s momentum further. He wonders whether it might have been different had he been in the dug-out rather than in the stand due to a suspension after an out-of-character outburst in the previous qualifier against Croatia.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” he lamented yesterday. “But I still felt we would qualify.”
Even now, Brown winces slightly at mention of the Belgians, who return to Hampden on Friday evening for the first time since 2001. Worryingly, they look a rather more fearsome proposition than they did then. Belgium are now a team full of household names. Of the players who took part in the last clash in Glasgow, the stand-outs are perhaps only Marc Wilmots, scorer of their first goal at Hampden and now the manager, former Celtic defender Joos Valgaeren and Emile Mpenza. Not that Scotland were packed full of stellar talents. As with many of Brown’s sides, they were a team melded together and designed to play to the best of their collective strength.
“What about Billy Dodds?” asked Brown. “I doubt they had ever heard of him in Belgium. But he scored twice. Admittedly, they didn’t have household name players, but then neither did we.”
It seems cruel to have to remind the 73 year-old about a game played a dozen years ago that ended on such a sour note. However, Brown says he can recall it as if it were yesterday. “We were doing well, and had a wonderful chance,” he said. “Barry Ferguson was through on the goalkeeper to make it 3-0 and it was as good a chance as you will see.
“Instead of going three up we were stuck at two – and 2-0 can be dangerous when you have to protect it for quite a while, as we had to.
“They pulled a goal back and had a player sent off. You often find that the ten get extra impetus – they have a persecution complex. Of all the internationals that I can think of, if there was one mistake I made… you look back after games, you do a personal de-briefing. In that game, when we were ahead, I would normally change the team when it’s down to the last five minutes; usually change a striker and then another striker.
“I am not making excuses,” he added. “On that day I was banned from the touchline after being sent off v Croatia. I was not down among the subs. Archie Knox, my assistant, was looking up – and even the doctor was running down with messages. However, I am sure that, had I been sitting down in the technical area, I would have made a couple more changes in the last five minutes, pure and simply to help kill their momentum.
“It is standard practice. We only used one of the three [substitutes]. I thought afterwards: I could have put on two more subs. It’s a self-recrimination. No-one pointed the finger. There were other occasions when what I did I felt was very right. But I felt that I could have averted what happened on that afternoon.”
As for Friday night’s game, which Brown is set to attend, he believes Scotland could be handed some hope due to the visitors having many players whose minds are on other things, including moves to new clubs. Both Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku made transfers on the last day of the transfer window – the former signing for Manchester United from Everton for over £27 million, and the latter joining Everton on loan from Chelsea.
“Even though they are not certain of qualifying, they could take their foot off the gas a wee bit,” pondered Brown. “Some of them might be thinking: ‘I have got an important Champions League game coming up’. Not deliberately, but subconsciously.”
Having been at the helm when Scotland defeated England on their previous visit to Wembley, Brown was proud to see Gordon Strachan’s side run the hosts so close last month in the 3-2 loss.
Rather than make too few substitutions, Scotland made too many of them against England. “If it wasn’t for all the substitutions, I don’t think we would have lost that game to England,” said Brown. “The worst we would have got is a draw and, remember, they scored their first goal when Grant Hanley was off the pitch. And, of course, the victory in Croatia before that was an exceptional performance.”
It is interesting to note how history has repeated itself. As in the early 2000s, Scotland find themselves in a group containing both Belgium and Croatia once more. Unlike then, it will be something of an achievement if they can finish third behind them again.