Billy Brown thought he’d seen it all during a lifetime in football, 23 years of them spent as right hand man to Jim Jefferies in one of the game’s strongest partnerships as they travelled from Falkirk to Hearts on to Bradford, north again to Kilmarnock before eventually ending up in Gorgie once more.
But today he admitted nothing he’d experienced in all that time could have prepared him for this, possibly the strangest season he’s ever endured. It was one which began amid the familiar surroundings of Tynecastle, Jefferies and Brown viewing the coming campaign with more than a touch of optimism having seen the Jambos finish the previous year in third place.
Their hopes undoubtedly rose with a draw at Ibrox on the opening day, a match many reckoned Hearts were unlucky not to win, while the club’s Europa League adventure had got off to a similarly promising start, a draw away to Hungarian side Paksi.
However, both they and the rest of Scottish football were stunned when Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov sacked them at the beginning of August, sparking an astonishing chain of events for Brown as he crossed “the great divide” to become assistant to Colin Calderwood at Easter Road, taking over as caretaker boss when the former Scotland defender was axed and then becoming No. 2 to his successor Pat Fenlon having been unsuccessful in his own bid to be named Hibs manager.
And, in a final twist to the tale, Brown will find himself back at Tynecastle again on Sunday, but this time to occupy the away dug-out just yards away from where he and Jefferies once stood.
Brown has, of course, been back to Tynie on a number of occasions as part of Kilmarnock’s management team but this weekend will be his first in the green of arch rivals Hibs.
It’s a curious story as Brown admitted, saying: “To think in August I was at Hearts and now I am going back as assistant manager of Hibs is definitely a strange tale to tell and one I did not think would happen.
“I would have thought I was going to finish my time at Hearts because things were going so well, so it [being sacked] was completely unexpected. I think you get to the stage in football where nothing surprises you, but that did.”
As Brown acknowledged, however, such dramatic departures from the script have been a way of life at Tynecastle since Romanov took over. “No-one is safe there,” he said, “no matter how well you do, no-one is safe. It’s a very unstable environment to be in.
“We knew that when we went there and although we thought we had nothing to lose it was still strange. Jim and I felt cheated. We felt that with the squad we had, once we got the team right, the set-up, and the great spirit that was about the place, that this was the year.”
Despite his close association with Jefferies and Hearts, Brown insisted he had barely a moment’s hesitation when offered the chance to team up with Calderwood at Easter Road. “When Hibs first got in touch with me I was in Tenerife on holiday. My first thought only was that it was great to be invited to work for another big club again. I was excited right away. Then you sit down and think about it.
“There were things to think about, ie the relationship I’d had with Jim for all those years and the successful relationship it was. Obviously crossing the great divide was another because I do live in the area and I was leaving myself open.
“Obviously I spoke to Jim but he was all for it. I didn’t have any real hesitation. Being brought up in Musselburgh, I went to Easter Road when I was young watching games and all the great players. It was also the chance to work for another big club again.
“It probably only took me the time to drink a half-pint on the balcony to decide.” Calderwood’s departure opened the way for Brown to possibly become manager himself. But although he was interviewed, the job went to Irishman Pat Fenlon with Brown offered the opportunity to remain as his assistant. Again he had few, if any, reservations.
He said: “Of course I was disappointed not to get the job which was only natural because I wanted it. But when I didn’t get it and Pat asked me to be his assistant all disappointment was put to the side. If I had not fancied it or Pat hadn’t been someone I spoke to and liked and thought was good for the job, I would not have taken it.
“I’m only here because I want to be here.”
Nevertheless, it was potentially an awkward situation, the new manager well aware that Brown had been after his job but, he insisted, there’s been no such reservations. He said: “That could have happened. I don’t know if Pat was suspicious of me, he did not have to be.
“Once I hadn’t got the job and made the decision to stay there was never going to be any doubt I would help and be behind everything. I wouldn’t do that, it’s not the way I work. I have never been disloyal and once I agreed to be his assistant he was going to get every co-operation.
“There was no chip on my shoulder, you cannot sit back, look at your disappointments and let them bug you.”
Brown admitted crossing the Capital from a club which had been enjoying a fair measure of success to one which was struggling again at the wrong end of the table was something of a jolt to the system, but he emphasised that, over the past few months, progress has been made even if success will now be judged in terms of SPL survival.
“When I came here obviously the pool of players wasn’t good enough at that time, but that has changed a wee bit now.
“I must admit it hasn’t been easy trying to help to get the team turned round and having come from the group of players Jim and I had assembled to come to a team which was bottom, or near bottom, was a we bit of a culture shock to be honest.
“I came because I wanted to be here. It’s another challenge. I’ve had a few in my life and this was another with a club I obviously had an affection for. Everything in football is a challenge. There’s pressure no matter what end you are, a bit less when at the top end, but pressure nevertheless. But it is something I relish, I have always been football daft.
“Success will be keeping the team in the SPL, no doubt about that, but other avenues have opened as well, we are in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. Things have turned around, we’ve brought in decent players and the team is far better than it was.”
And it is that belief which leads Brown to predict Hearts will find Hibs an entirely different proposition to the side that faced them in his and Fenlon’s first derby in charge of the Easter Road outfit, the January 2 encounter ending in a comfortable 3-1 win for the Jambos.
He said: “Jim and I always felt during our first time with Hearts that a derby, either at Tynecastle or Easter Road, was a real, real hard affair but when we went back we thought it wasn’t as hard as it should have been.
“But I think this time it will be different. This is a different Hibs team, they are more resilient, harder all round, harder to beat with a great spirit about them.
“This time it will be a different derby and I think Hearts will realise that.”