He may have long since become a septuagenarian, but Craig Brown is no old fogey. Performance director Malky Mackay this week implored young Scottish talent to dedicate their every waking hour to improving technically and athletically in order to maximise abilities that, aged 15, make them equals of those in other top European countries.
Brown fully endorses Mackay’s sentiments. Equally, though, he recognises times have changed, and that the current generation of footballers in this country will not develop with the same narrow focus as players did in this country’s golden age of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, as a consequence of disadvantages with facilities and climate in Scotland compared to comparably-sized nations, young players will in some cases be held back through no fault of their own.
“I would say there are more distractions now for the younger players than there used to be. We used to go out and play football, we didn’t have laptops or computers. Young kids now can play football on these things without ever kicking a ball. When we had the under-16s before the World Cup here [in 1989] we took them to the coaching course at Largs as runners. And that was compulsory. When the guys were doing their coaching session the kids would do the drills for them. Sometimes you just use each other but often you bring runners to help illustrate the drills. They were the guinea pigs.
“Clubs back then were told to send their under-16 boys, guys like Paul Dickov and Neil Murray to Largs.
“I would go into their room at night and tell them to get on the floor and give me 50 sit-ups. They just got into the habit of doing the hard work. Malky has this idea that fitness or dedication should be better and he’s got a point. We mollycoddle the kids a wee bit. Successful countries like Iceland have terrific indoor facilities. I think they have seven full-side pitches and we only have four in the whole of Scotland. At night I used to go home and play football until it was time for my tea. Now they are definitely not doing that. I’m not saying they are doing it in other countries, but other countries have a more favourable environment. The most successful country in the world in each group just now is Croatia who have qualified for World Cups at under-16, under-20 and the main one. They have got a great infrastructure and good weather.”
In the past decade Brown managed Motherwell and Aberdeen and in these posts he witnessed no drop-off in the dedication of aspiring professionals. The modern era would prevent any slacking being subject to the same harsh punishments of 40 years ago – a source of some regret for Brown.
“I’ve been lucky with the two teams that I’ve worked with in recent years in that the kids have been brilliantly dealt with. At Motherwell Gordon Young was the youth coach and they were in first thing in the morning until last thing at night. He worked them hard and their attitude was fantastic. That’s not the same at every club. Some of the kids go away at lunchtime. At Aberdeen we had Neil Cooper, and then Derek McInnes brought in Paul Sheerin. And both these guys were fantastic with the youths with their attitude and commitment.
“It used to be the youth players or under-21 players had to sweep out the stand as a punishment if they lost a game. Or maybe they had to clean the manager’s car. But you couldn’t get away from that now. Jim McLean had the cleanest car in Britain as he was the hardest manager in the world. I worked with his brother Willie at Motherwell the first time and if you wanted you could give a punishment to someone who wasn’t playing well or if the team had lost.
“There’s the story from Fergie’s time at Aberdeen when the young boys in the reserves – guys like John Hewitt and Eric Black – lost a game at Cowdenbeath. And he told them they were making their own way back as the team bus was going without them. They had no money and of course there were no mobile phones in those days.
“Now if you asked kids to sweep a stand or clean a car the union would be right on to you. They wouldn’t tolerate that. They would say you were bullying young boys. But Malky has a point that young players are sitting on their iPads and laptops too much.”
l Craig Brown was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.