Aidan Smith: Confessions of a telephone interviewer
I’VE got a confession to make. If you’d read an interview I did with Craig Brown a while back you might have got the impression it had been conducted face-to-face. In truth, we spoke on the phone. Let me tell you, journalists are always doing this.
We want you to think we’re in the same room as great men. We hope this fact alone will suggest that interviewer and subject communed on an intimate level, shared fine wines from the private supply – and secrets too outrageous to print. Something else we do is fib about interview length. “A wide-ranging discussion lasting two hours” usually means a few minutes over the allotted 60. We want you to think that, at the conclusion of formal business, interviewer and subject slipped on their gladrags and hit the town, waking up three days later with the same tattoo.
I’m owning up to this tiny crime now – come on, nobody died, it was phone conversation not phone-tapping – because the truth reflects well on Brown. He’d tried to find a spare hour, or hour and a few minutes, to do the chat in person but, having just taken over at Motherwell, it was all go. He suggested I call him later when he’d be at Prestwick airport, waiting for family to arrive. No, no, I said, not wanting to intrude. He insisted and, even though his day would get even more protracted, with much time spent on the roads between Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, a meeting with the chairman, an under-19s game, flight delays and Brown at that point being 69 years old, he was true to his word when he said: “I’ll talk for as long as you want, son.” With airport announcements bing-bonging, he was still yabbering away at a quarter to midnight. And I do mean 11.45pm.
This merely confirmed what colleagues said about him. One of the good guys, helpful and decent. A cynic might suggest that, with him never really getting the praise as national coach that back-to-back finals merited, he might have been quite keen on a two-page spread. I didn’t see it that way, and I say this as one of the non-praisers who wishes he knew during Brown’s reign what kind of unflamboyant Scotland teams were coming over the hill. Brown wanted us to get enthused about a side containing three hulking centre-backs, about 0-0 draws in Russia but we couldn’t, not quite. Actually, some did. Over-enthused and over-tartaned.
The emergence of the professional Scotsman of the fitba terraces – drawing attention to himself in a way predecessors who matched the kilt with Adidas Sambas and dirty-white towelling socks didn’t do – was another issue we had with the Brown era, although the manager can’t be held responsible for the monster’s creation.
Look what came before Brown. Look where flamboyance got us in the 1960s (big-shot players trying to run the show, epic under-achievement). When flamboyance got us to Argentina in the 1970s, look what happened. And look what came after. Scotland, under Walter Smith, Alex McLeish and Craig Levein, were often more defensive and difficult-to-watch than sides put out under Brown. I remember being annoyed when Scotland lost 2-0 to England in that Euro 2000 play-off when, really, there was no shame in being outwitted by Paul Scholes. I was annoyed again two years later when Scotland couldn’t beat Belgium. These were Brown’s failures but they were proper failures, glorious ones. A better-directed Christian Dailly header and Barry Ferguson shot and Brown might have made it four finals in a row. Just recently, though, we’ve endured some hopeless campaigns, virtually over before they’d begun, with the desperate coach urging us to keep believing, a plea which only registered with the over-festooned, over-singing their daft anthems.
Approaching midnight three years ago, I asked Brown if he was aware of there being revisionist approval of his Scotland tenure by those unimpressed at the time, and whether this was cause for a wry smile. His reply, I think, sums him up. “Not at all. I know what I did, and that it was the best I could have done. I took no pleasure in us failing after me because I’m first and foremost a fan. If I’d been asked to clean the boots at Hampden, I’d have done it.”
No need for that, Craig. You’ve got the allotment bunnet, and now you’ve got the retirement. Enjoy.