The news that Scott Brown is returning for Scotland little more than two months after he announced his decision to retire can only be welcomed.
Several observations inform such a view. The player himself has never been in better form, nor has he looked in better physical shape.
Scotland, meanwhile, have rarely been so desperate for a fillip. Wembley is on the horizon and a defeat there would surely spell the end of their World Cup hopes – and possibly Gordon Strachan’s tenure as manager.
It’s news that comes as a bolt from the blue. Brown gave no hint last week when he sat and spoke at Hampden for some time at a media event prior to the Betfred Cup semi-final between Rangers and Celtic last week.
Sitting there in his Celtic strip – he and Lee Wallace, his opposite number at Ibrox, were fully kitted out for promotional photographs – it was impossible to miss noticing just how lean and fit Brown looked. But then it’s not as if his performances have failed to relay the message that he’s back to his best.
Only against Borussia Monchengladbach in recent weeks has he fallen below what is now becoming expected from him once more; against Manchester City, Dundee, Rangers (twice) and others, he’s been inspirational.
Strachan could only look on and wince. Things were desperate enough for him without being trolled by a player of whom he’s such a fan. Brown seems to have been sympathetic to his plight.
It’s understood the possibility of Brown returning hatched on the day of that Betfred Cup semi-final press conference; the midfielder was spotted – still in kit – speaking with Scottish Football Association officials at the national stadium long after the event had finished.
Brown had found watching the match that first put Scotland’s qualifying hopes in jeopardy, against Lithuania, a trying experience. He was there as a guest of SFA president Alan McRae.
There he was among the posh seats feeling as good as he did but yet powerless to prevent Scotland’s hopes take a severe dent in the 1-1 draw. It didn’t sit right with him.
It had always seemed an unsatisfactory way for Brown to end his Scotland career. While his 50 caps total provided a round number on which to finish and meant he had entered the Scottish Football Association’s Roll of Honour, he was only 31.
Playing at a major finals was still an itch that needed scratched. It felt like he’d stepped away from the fight to achieve this goal one campaign too early. His original decision was also a surprise given the identity of one of Scotland’s Group F opponents: the chance to play a competitive fixture against England at Wembley doesn’t come around too often these days.
And then there was his mentor, Strachan, pictured, to consider. The manager who had stood by Brown, handed him the captaincy and generally backed him up whenever he needed backed, such as after he had been photographed slumped next to a wall after a booze binge in Edinburgh last year.
It’s likely Brown would not have returned for anyone else. So that’s one positive at least from Strachan’s decision not to walk away after the 3-0 defeat to Slovakia earlier this month. Even his keenest critics will accept few others could have drawn such an about-turn from Brown.
But some of those keenest critics might also complain about Strachan sanctioning such an about turn. After all, it was Brown’s decision to walk away. But then David Weir was welcomed back by most fans, Steven Fletcher, too. Brown’s decision to retire was not because of a fit of pique. He genuinely felt his Celtic career would benefit. So it has proved.
In contrast, few could argue with Strachan’s contention that Scotland’s midfield is “weaker” without Brown. This has become more apparent with every passing game.
Indeed, the manner of the recent loss to Slovakia might well have convinced Strachan that he needs Brown more than ever – even if it proves to be on a one-game basis.
With no one else seemingly able to perform the sitting role in front of the two central defenders with any level of competence, Scotland were ripped apart in Trnava.
Strachan knows it could be getting close to the end. He is aware his future likely hinges on the outcome of next month’s match. It’s the last competitive fixture for four months. Indeed, Scotland only have one more qualifier before the return fixture against England next summer. If not quite win or bust, it’s must-not-lose or bust.
With Brown operating at the fulcrum of the midfield, shielding the back four and perhaps more critically, the two centre-backs, the chance of avoiding defeat is significantly improved. But let’s not pretend the news is going to be greeted with too much interest in England. Brown isn’t Leo Messi. Things aren’t necessarily going to start happening with him in the side; it’s just that, with him on board to snuff out danger, the defensive malfunctions might well stop.
That, surely, is all Strachan is concerned about; what Brown can provide during a critical 90 minutes. The difficulties that might stem from Brown’s return, such as whether or not he returns as captain, can be addressed in the coming days.
If handing Brown the skipper’s armband, as is surely logical now he’s back in the fold, impacts negatively on the manager’s relationship with Darren Fletcher, then this is something Strachan will just have to accept. Some noses are undoubtedly going to be put out of joint by this decision.
Brown used to look out on Jim Baxter’s statue each morning when he drew back the curtains in his bedroom in Hill of Beath before going to school, so it’s no surprise he is captivated by the idea of shining at Wembley, when it matters.
It might be a risk. Actually, without doubt it’s a risk. Scotland might still lose, Brown could play badly and both he and Strachan will look foolish. But they’ve both reached the same conclusion; it’s worth the risk given what’s at stake.