Wherever he was, he would barely have been able to believe it had you told him that the next time the countries met he would be the one leading Scotland out at the famous stadium, where another celebrated son of Hill of Beath had once established himself in Scottish folklore.
“Jim Baxter came from right across the road from me in Hill of Beath,” the player explained yesterday, just minutes after hearing that he had been confirmed as skipper for tonight’s Teenager Cancer Trust international friendly match against England. He was still gushing from the news when he met with reporters at the Scotland base on the outskirts of St Albans.
While he stressed he could not be compared to Baxter as a footballer, Brown still displayed some of the irrepressible qualities that made Baxter such a force of nature when he was alive.
“People back home are always talking about how he juggled the ball at Wembley in ’67 – though don’t hold your breath for me doing the same,” said Brown. “I’ve got enough trouble passing the ball five yards, never mind playing keepy-up!”
“The older ones talk about ‘Wembley Weekends’ and going on the pitch to nick the turf – you know, the kind of things good Scottish people do,” he smiled. “So to be here now and be part of a fixture like this is just about as good as it gets.”
Each morning when Brown pulled back his bedroom curtains he was reminded of the local hero, since the commemorative statue is fixed to a stone base on the opposite side of the pavement, just across from where Brown grew up. At night, the bulbs illuminating the heroic figure disrupted the young Brown’s dreams of stardom.
“Jim’s statue is right outside my bedroom window,” he confirmed yesterday, although it was something he reflected on in some detail to The Scotsman in 2003, shortly after he made the breakthrough at Hibernian, his first club.
“Some weird people put Celtic scarves on it, but no one will ever destroy it ’cos he was a legend in Hill of Beath,” said Brown back then. His manager Bobby Williamson had been reluctant at first to allow Brown to speak, in what was one of his first media appointments. He had just turned 18. “He’ll be some player,” I remember Williamson saying. Although his story contained a warning about the corrosive power of fame given his battle with alcohol addiction, Baxter was an understandably inspiring presence for a young footballer until his death in 2001. His statue was unveiled two years later.
“I saw it every morning going to school and to training,” said Brown yesterday. “It proved that even if you come from such a small town, you can go on and achieve great things.
“I’ve seen old grainy black and white [film] of him at Wembley in ’67,” he added. “It took some nerve to do what he did in front of 100,000 people – rather him than me, that’s for sure.
“I looked up to him because everyone from my town talked about him – about how Jim did this and Jim did that. He went down to Wembley and ran riot against the English and there are not a lot of people in the world who can say that. He is one of them and he was from just across the road from me, so that was a great inspiration and honour.”
Brown has something over Baxter, however. Perhaps because he could not always be trusted to behave the correct way, Baxter never captained Scotland. “This is right up there for me,” said Brown, when asked where skippering Scotland at Wembley ranks in his career. “I can’t get much higher. I’ll strive to do the best that I can and hopefully get a victory as well.”
He is already doing a sterling job of defending Scottish football. Asked by an English reporter whether he thought the Scottish game was disrespected south of the Border, Brown flashed back a response: “‘Could you name a couple of Kilmarnock players? No? Proves my point.” The individual looked suitably chastened, even though he could hardly be faulted for this gap in his knowledge.
“I know we are a small country and not as big as England, but I think we can give as good as we get on our day,” added Brown. “We seem to thrive on big occasions sometimes.”
Brown, of course, might have been playing in England had then Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp succeeded in his attempts to bring the midfielder south. “That was a long time ago – when I was fit!” said Brown. “I enjoy playing at Celtic and I signed again because I enjoy winning trophies. Being in the Champions League is also huge.”
He prefers being at Celtic because there is more scope to move forward from midfield during matches. “I might have had to sit back and defend if I’d gone to England and was playing against the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea,” he explained. “At Celtic, you always have to be on the front foot – apart from when you’re in Champions League.”
He knows that Scottish football suffers in comparison to the richer, far more hyped English Premier League. “I think they don’t pay too much attention to Scottish football down here,” said Brown. “They’ll probably know Rangers and Celtic, but that’s it, nothing much else, whereas up the road we know everyone in their league.”
Brown made a lasting impression yesterday, however. English reporters who didn’t know much about him prior to his captain’s briefing were certainly left in no doubt whatsoever about the type of character he is. Another lad from Hill of Beath had let no one down on the eve of a match that evokes so many memories.