Tricky trip to Fife welcomed by Mark Brown after months on bench

IT’S a scenario which might prompt some to tell Mark Brown that he should be careful what he wishes for. The Hibernian goalkeeper has been growing more and more frustrated on the substitutes’ bench as a deputy for Graham Stack.

He hasn’t got his gloves dirty on first-team duty since picking the ball out of the net four times in the defeat to Celtic in the League Cup in October. That was the last of three appearances this season, all of them in the same competition.

He is desperate for a game. The good news is that, due to the calf injury sustained by Graham Stack during the derby on Monday, he is getting one this afternoon. The bad news is that it is at Cowdenbeath, after a week of howling wind and in a competition where Hibs routinely trip up.

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The leaders of the Second Division are also smelling blood given Hibs’ desperate run of form. This, then, is the backdrop to Brown’s first game in over two months. But the goalkeeper has guts. He denied Hibs were “dreading” the appointment, a word used by one Cowdenbeath player earlier in the week. “For me it is a chance to play so I am looking forward to it,” said Brown.

Surprisingly, Brown has only played once before at Central Park in a reserve game for Rangers. The often mocked surroundings don’t matter a jot to him just so long as he is not on the bench, as he has been in every league game this season. Brown, whose contract expires at the end of the season, is clearly unhappy at not having been given more opportunities under Colin Calderwood, manager Pat Fenlon’s predecessor. “I thought I would get an opportunity this season but the previous manager opted not to play me,” he said. “I have had to be patient and now Pat’s taken over I’m trying to do the best I can in training.

“It’s been really frustrating on the sidelines,” he added. “I’ve played in the League Cup but not to have played in the SPL [this season] is disappointing. This is a chance for me to impress and to try and turn the club’s fortunes around.

Brown has had positive experience of being involved in a cup shock when winning the man of the match award for Inverness Caledonian Thistle in their Scottish Cup quarter final defeat of Celtic in 2003. He knows what it takes to rise to the occasion and so he should know what to expect from Cowdenbeath. “Any time you go to a lower league ground it’s a potential cup upset,” he said. “I have played in the past for a lower league team against a higher ranked team and I know we need to go to Cowdenbeath and be professional.

Brown was dropped after keeping a clean sheet against Ayr United at the same stage last year and so was spared the indignity of losing the replay at Somerset Park. No-one needs to inform Brown of Hibs’ torturous relationship with this particular tournament. “I’ve been at the club a couple of years now and the fans let you know what the Scottish Cup means to them,” he said. “Our best chance was probably a couple of seasons ago when we lost to Ross County in a replay in the quarter-final.

“The cup hasn’t been kind, not just recently but over many years. The other side of the coin is that you wouldn’t get many more enjoyable things in Scottish football than being part of a Scottish Cup-winning Hibs team.”

Although a recent recruit, Liam O’Brien, the Hibs first team coach, is also alert to the troubles the club have had in this tournament. Like Brown, O’Brien has had his moments in knock-out competitions, featuring for Tranmere Rovers in their run to the semi-final of the Worthington Cup in 1994, where they were defeated on penalties by Aston Villa. O’Brien, whisper it, missed a penalty kick which could have taken Tranmere to Wembley to face one of his former clubs, Manchester United. He was also in the Bohemians side who defeated Aberdeen 2-1 at Pittodrie in 2000, in the first leg of a preliminary round stage of the Uefa Cup.

He was an unused substitute when the Irish side completed the job in Dublin. Of the first match, O’Brien said yesterday: “Maybe Aberdeen were thinking that it was just a team from the League of Ireland coming over, and all they had to do was show up. It didn’t work out for them that day. When you start in a low gear it’s hard to get out of it. That’s what we’ll be telling our players on Saturday – make sure you start in a high gear.”

O’Brien acknowledged that confidence is low in the Hibs camp. It reminds him of his time at Newcastle, the club he joined from Old Trafford in 1988. The year he signed Newcastle were relegated from the old First Division.“It wasn’t a nice place to be and it took Kevin Keegan’s return to bring about an up-turn in fortunes.

“They are very passionate in Newcastle and the team were struggling,” he said. “The majority were fine, but there was a section of the crowd who were on the players’ backs week in week out, and that little bit of fear got into even the experienced players. What happens then is that players don’t want the ball. That’s when you need strong characters in the team.”

The same now applies to Hibs, particularly today.