So here we are in Glasgow’s Merchant City, myself and John “Bomber” Brown, and one of the most ferocious competitors Scotland football has known is enthusing about his love of cooking and admiration for the hunky celebrity chef James Martin.
Brown’s last “gig” indeed was a Martin cookery demo at the Royal Concert Hall. “Who’d have thought a Stiff Little Fingers fan would have ended up at something like that?” he laughs. Yes, Bomber used to be a punk rocker and back in the day you’d have found him at the fabled Apollo Theatre, pogo-ing down the front of the yawningly high stage to the Fingers, the Stranglers, Blondie and Sham 69.
Velvet collar on his coat today, we’re looking for somewhere to talk. Brown has insisted on coming into town from his East Kilbride home to make my life easier as I’m due at the Concert Hall later (no big-jessie chefs for your correspondent). He points out the place where he meets his parents every Tuesday and Friday, his ex-army dad always in a collar and tie – “as he would be even in 90 degrees”. But we’re not stopping there because he thinks it’ll be too noisy for my voice-recorder.
We find a deserted bar with Brown insistent he buys the coffees and he continues to sketch out a portrait of himself different from the one of bonkers bluenose mythology. His big thing right now is fishing. Recently he was in Alaska, on a quest for silver salmon. “That was sensational. Bears would be after the fish, too. They’d be just six feet away, scooping with their huge paws.” Wow, I say, and did he remember the correct avoiding action when confronted by a grizzly – do you try and run up a hill or is it down? “Dunno. But I think that’s the question bears discuss whenever they encounter the Bomber!”
Go on, admit it. he’s surprising you. You thought he was a big, baldy, shouty, scary man whose idea of recreation was watching nine-in-a-row videos. He wonders if this is what some club chairmen think, impeding his chances of getting back into management.
Now, before we go any further I should say that Brown, 54, is not on a promotional drive to present himself as some kind of a renaissance man, or to display a softer side. None of this detail emerges without me requesting it. I’m not here to write a hagiography but must report that he’s good company and funny with it. He makes no apologies for championing the Rangers cause, even though this contributed to his downfall as boss of Dundee, and his passion for his boyhood heroes is to be admired. And, just as he never shirked a tackle, he doesn’t mince his words when discussing others who in his eyes don’t show the same commitment.
Consider this: before becoming an Ibrox redoubtable, Brown helped Dundee stop Hearts winning the Premier League, 30 years ago this May. The Jambos only required a point at Dens Park which would have made the five goals Celtic were banging past St Mirren inconsequential and Brown reckons they simply lost their bottle.
Hearts were hit by a virus, forcing Craig Levein to call off completely, but Brown was unimpressed by that excuse. “I’d have said to Craig that day: ‘You’ve never won a medal in your life and you only need a draw to become champions – if you’re shittin’ your pants, big deal.’ I mean, Sandy Jardine played and how old was he at the time, 37? But I always remember something big Dave McPherson said to me about Craig: that he never thought anything was his fault.”
Dundee and Rangers meet in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals today, a tie which greatly intrigues Brown who’s delighted to see the Dark Blues re-established as a top-flight force and equally pleased that Rangers are heading back there, though there’s this advice for Mark Warburton, a manager Bomber admires: “He’ll know already that the fans are demanding. Next season they’ll be expecting him to win the Premiership.”
During four years on Tayside he played alongside Tommy Coyne, Keith Wright, Jim Duffy, Tosh McKinlay – an attractive team for sure. But his Rangers side made history, and four years ago it was the threat of the heritage being lost that compelled him to make a stand for which he’ll be remembered the rest of his days.
At the Ibrox gates he was imploring those inside – specifically Charles Green, trumpeted as saviour – to reveal the name on the club’s title deeds. He was telling the fans gathered outside the Big Hoose – some holding up babes, others roaring “On ye go, Bomber!” – how they could starve Green of cash and mount a coup: “You lot buy the season books, the strips, the pies, the match programmes – you’ve got the power.” Some observers described his impassioned rant differently: “Howling at the moon,” they said.
“I cringe when I think of that day,” he admits. “I wasn’t up to speed with downloading so had no idea the clip would travel right round the world.” You wonder if Brown remembered how the Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel or Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey used to control – and milk – the Apollo rabble. “Well, it was scripted. I’ve never watched it back but know there was some swearing, which was embarrassing. I had to shout because folk at the back couldn’t hear but I did get carried away. I was frustrated because a situation was developing from which the club might never have recovered. Charles Green told me he had the power to shut Rangers down and that was why I had to act and I spoke from the heart.
“My disappointment was that very few came with me and stood alongside me. I’m talking about old team-mates here but I suppose footballers are selfish: they think about what’s in their best interest. Stick your head above the parapet and you can get ridiculed, which was what happened to me. I’m big enough and ugly enough not to mind that but it wasn’t too nice for my family. My kids read on Facebook and Twitter how their dad was this and that and had lost the plot. But history will show, I think, that I was right about Charles Green. There are proper Rangers people involved now and I’m more optimistic about the club’s future.”
Some back-story: at the time of Brown’s impending arrival all the Glasgow maternity-wards were full, so his mother Irene was whisked out to Lennoxtown Castle in Dunbartonshire. Here comes a line he may have used before: “That was a psychiatric hospital, which maybe explains why I’m the way I am!”
His father Andy was a train driver, played with Pumpherston Juniors and took Brown and his brother David to see Rangers, just too late for a glimpse of Jim Baxter, but our man was hooked. He holds the distinction of having turned down Alex Ferguson: “I was with St Mirren Boys’ Club and, standing behind the goals at a tournament one Sunday morning, Fergie saw me score a hat-trick and told the coach to offer me schoolboy forms. But I’d just come back from my first cartilage operation, four months out, and wasn’t sure I was going to get anything from Saints so had signed for Hamilton Accies the night before.” Brown would apologise for the snub when Ferguson was first into the Elland Road dressing-room to congratulate Rangers for overcoming Leeds United in 1992 in the Champions League’s “Battle of Britain”.
Brown would have every cartilage removed before he was 21, and all told 20 operations in his career, which may explain the urgency and indeed frenzy with which he played football, as if worrying that the end was imminent. A year before he got his dream move to Ibrox Hearts wanted to sign him but in his medical couldn’t convince chairman Wallace Mercer of his durability. “Driving away from Tynecastle I had to pull into a layby and have a greet to myself. I felt such a failure.” What, the hard man wept? “Well, maybe just say I had a chuckle!”
Back to Accies. He played against George Best and Jimmy Johnstone and with John Blackley, the classy ex-Hibee doubling up as a Douglas Park coach. All of this was terrifically educational. “I was a kid playing against seniors, getting the odd hiding but learning from them, making my mistakes early. Nowadays 17-year-olds only play with and against other 17-year-olds in these youth initiative leagues – that’s wrong.” In red and white hoops he once scored a notable hat-trick – three from left-back without the aid of a penalty. “We beat Berwick Rangers 9-1 but [manager] Davie McParland criticised me for their goal and wouldn’t hand over match ball so I had to steal it.”
Doesn’t he think it perverse when victorious managers can be monumentally disgruntled, Fergie and Jim McLean being other examples? “Well, these two gave players brilliant careers because they never stopped pushing them.” At Dundee Archie Knox was another hard taskmaster but by the time Jocky Scott took charge Brown was getting restless. “I’d been a welder, which is a filthy job, so I was very happy playing professional football but desperate to win trophies. All I had to my name, two weeks short of my 26th birthday, was the Forfarshire Cup. That was 20 quid in a brown envelope.”
Brown is talking about his dramatic flight from Dens to sign for Graeme Souness, this yarn beginning with interest from across the Old Firm divide. “I played in a Jim Duffy benefit against an SPL select managed by Billy McNeill who sent Tommy Burns across to get my phone number because Celtic were interested in signing me. A few days later Dundee were playing Rangers at Dens, me against Graeme in the midfield. In a previous match, knowing how to disable an opponent, he’d punched me in the kidneys. That day Rangers won 4-0, even Terry Butcher was drilling in 25-yarders, and I just lost the plot and cemented Graeme. Next day he phoned me: would I like to come to Rangers?
“The transfer got protracted because Dundee wouldn’t sell and yet guys like Robert Connor and Ray Stephen got their moves. Rangers wanted me before a Euro deadline and I was so worried it wouldn’t happen I lost 10lbs in a fortnight. Then it did and I made my debut at Tynecastle when bananas were thrown at Mark Walters.”
But it could have been the other lot. “The next time I saw Tommy was at Ayr Races, some daft promotional thing where all the Premier League clubs got a horse named after them. He asked if I could have played for Celtic and I let my gee-gee answer for me!”
Rangers knew what they were getting – an all-action midfielder with the classic CV for an Old Firm acquisition, having previously caused them considerable damage. Pre-Souness, in 1985 Brown had scored the Dundee goal which knocked Rangers out of the Scottish Cup at Ibrox and followed that with a hat-trick against them in a league victory at Dens. “My best scoring record was against Rangers and I came to enjoy those goals. Because I had red hair and freckles their fans assumed I was a Celtic boy and so gave me loads of abuse.”
But he would ultimately earn the respect and gratitude of the Copland Road faithful for indomitable displays in defence, ever willing to stand in for a more glamorous name and eventually proving almost impossible to dislodge – not least in the Treble-winning ’92-’93 season alongside Richard Gough, 44 games unbeaten with the Gers narrowly failing to reach the Champions League final.
“When I told Graeme I was worried about the medical he pointed to his chest and said: ‘That’s just an X-ray - it’s what’s in here that matters.’ I was absolutely thrilled, as a boy from the terraces, to get the chance to play for Rangers. I knew what Graeme and later Walter Smith would be like as bosses – ruthless. If I didn’t perform I’d be out. I thought that even if I got two years at it I could make my mum and dad proud. But I wanted it to last as long as possible.
“I knew playing with superstars would improve my game. There was Trevor Francis, European Cup-winner, reading his Financial Times – and across the dressing-room Derek Ferguson with his Beano! I was sure I could match every one of the big names for effort and endeavour. They maybe had more skill but out on the training-field they would know all about me. I never thought: ‘I’m not worthy.’”
Every close-season Brown anticipated more glitzy arrivals to threaten his place. “So I’d plonk the towel next to the pool and go running every day.” He remembers shrugging off gastroenteritis to face Celtic’s Roy Aitken – no sick-note for him. Through ’90-’91 he took injections for six months to get himself onto the park. “On the morning of the title decider against Aberdeen I literally had to crawl out of bed on my hands and knees.” He recalls the march towards another league flag, a game at Raith Rovers where just back from another injury his mistakes had cost two goals, with Paul Gascoigne trying to coax a performance from him, summing up the great togetherness of the group.
His old pal doesn’t have his problems to seek right now. “You know, Gazza is the most generous guy I’ve ever met. A lovely bloke who’d give you the last pound in his pocket to put a smile on your face. Too many people, I think, have abused that. I just hope he can find some peace. Football was his life but he can’t play it anymore. These dinners are okay but folk are still making money off him. When he’s back in his flat, alone, there must be a comedown. Us old footballers need a life beyond the game.”
Brown is a grandfather. He recently got married for a second time. He’s an ambassador for Rangers, a smart appointment by the club rather than have the passionate fan – and fearless critic – remain outside the gates. He has his fishing and his cooking and his life is as busy as that of an out-of-work manager can be. In charge at Dens, he loved the mind games, declared before a match featuring relegation rivals St Mirren that he was “looking forward to watching Titanic”, but couldn’t quite save the Dark Blues. Trying to save Rangers at the same time didn’t do him any favours and when he left he was dubbed old-fashioned, a charge he disputes by pointing to Alan Hutton and the rest of the talent which broke through during his spell as Ibrox youth coach.
You know, I didn’t think I would dare mention the word “dinosaur” in front of John Brown though would hesitate to call him a pussycat.
One thing’s for sure: the cause of Rangers today – and Dundee – would be greatly aided by having a Bomber in the line-up.