Interview: Craig Brown on glory days and World Cup woe v Costa Rica

Where are the men from Italia 90, the Scotland team in their summer-fun T-shirts, white with blue and yellow stripes? Quite a few of the personnel involved in the dismal World Cup defeat by Costa Rica seem to have emigrated from the homeland and others have been lying low this week, perhaps in anticipation of irritating calls from the likes of me as the national team prepare to embark on a new era with a re-match against the Central Americans. So thank goodness, then, for Craig Brown, who's painting a garden fence in Troon when I catch up with him.

Former Scotland manager Craig Brown. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
Former Scotland manager Craig Brown. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

You see, Broon was briefly one of a us: a pressman with a deadline to meet and a sports editor to satisfy. This was after his playing stint at Dundee when the Tayside-based Sunday Post recruited him for match reports – “for the princely sum of a penny a word,” he chuckles.

“I gained a good understanding of the pressures you guys work under, or used to work under before mobiles and the internet,” he adds. “If there wasn’t a DC Thomson’s phone in the pressbox, and for instance there wasn’t at Cappielow, I’d have to run down the street after the final whistle to find a phonebox and hope it hadn’t been vandalised or jammed with bubblegum.

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“I was taught the importance of a good intro. My sports editor, John Dron, told me: ‘Say you’re walking home and your neighbour who’s cutting his grass shouts over: ‘How did the game go?’ He’ll want it summed up: three players were sent off, the ref had a nightmare, whatever. That’s how your report must begin’.” One afternoon Broon of the Post had a nightmare: “I missed a goal covering Hibs v Kilmarnock. Head down, clattering away on my typewriter, I filed the score as 3-1 to the Hibees. Later I got a call from the office: ‘It was 4-1, ya balloon!’”

The omitted goal must have denied him a few more pennies but sometimes the fitba, bless it, defied description. “An Airdrie-Aberdeen match, 1-0 to the Dons, Drew Jarvie’s goal the only bright spot, was definitely my dreariest match as a reporter. I was stumped if I knew what to say about it and eventually wrote: ‘Auld Will Shakespeare summed up this game to perfection – much ado about nothing.’ Full marks to the sub-editor. His headline was: ‘Jarvie the merchant of menace.’

I’m talking to Brown, 77, as he’s getting ready for a Hampden lunch honouring one ex-Scotland manager, Bobby Brown, with another of the previous incumbents, Tommy Docherty, as his fellow speaker. That’s some top table of Dark Blue venerableness, occasional triumphs and glorious failures, combined age: 260. The lunch was yesterday and next Friday Brown will return to the national stadium to welcome Alex McLeish back into the dugout. “I’m a Big Eck fan,” he says, and of course our man had McLeish playing for him in Italy, all three group games 28 years ago when Brown was No 2 to Andy Roxburgh.

How do we remember the first act of that particular Shakespearean tragedy in Genoa, succumbing to Costa Rica’s first-ever World Cup goal in their tournament debut? It wasn’t a goal any scribe lost in his metaphors could miss. “Not the worst display,” reasoned The Scotsman, trying to be kind, before adding, “but the poorest result.”

This was the Scotland of Mo Johnston, Paul McStay and Jim Bett, with Roy Aitken and Richard Gough at the back beside McLeish and in front of Jim Leighton. We were bound to win, weren’t we? So the Tartan Army thought, along with the gentlemen of the press.

Now the best, most juicy story Brown will tell me about Italia 90 sadly cannot be disclosed. It involves a player whose cavalier ways were a serious distraction for the management duo. But Brown never spoke about this in his autobiography, nor to a tartan tabloid despite the paper being willing to stump up £60,000. Since I can only offer to help him paint his fence I don’t get anywhere near the big reveal.

“Costa Rica were no mugs,” explains Brown. “They were a good team who’d come through a very tough qualifying campaign and they had a canny guy for a coach.” This was Bora Milutinovic, who led different unfancied nations to the World Cup five times in a row. A “wily fox” Brown might have called him, had he still been using pressbox parlance.

Hang on, though, Los Ticos, as Costa Rica were known, hadn’t been watched beforehand. “Not in a live match situation, it’s true. But we studied them on video many times.” In hindsight, does he wish he and Roxburgh had seen them with their own eyes? “Well, you can’t minimise the importance of doing that. There’s always something you’ll get from it. But to suggest Andy was short of preparation would be wrong. He was meticulous and thorough. Maybe there’s an argument that he was over-prepared.”

Did Costa Rica, whose second-half scorer Juan Cayasso was set up by a clever back-heel, surprise him? “Not really, but we were fearful that something like that could happen.” This nation, heading into a fifth successive World Cup, saw no need for trepidation so when defeat came there was shock and anger. In this regard, Brown, having already expressed his admiration for journos, voices some grumbles.

“The media can influence fans. There was a view that Costa Rica were going to be a walkover and perhaps the Tartan Army bought into that. Not meaning to be critical, but I don’t think taking a lead from you guys is always a good idea. I remember when I was holding the fort for a couple of games [’93, prior to taking over from Roxburgh] and one of them was away to Italy. I’d gone to watch the Italians limber up but they weren’t on the park. ‘Inside,’ I was told, and on this three-quarter-sized pitch underneath the Olympic Stadium I saw the most incredibly high-tempo warm-up you could imagine. The sweat was pouring down [Roberto] Baggio’s ponytail. The intensity of the session was frightening. I told our boys this; we had to be completely switched on. Unfortunately we lost a goal immediately, Bryan Gunn diving right over the ball, and were two down after 16 minutes when I wanted a hole in the track to appear so I could jump right in.

“One report on the match began: ‘Italy treated Scotland with predictable contempt – they didn’t even bother with a warm-up.’ At the press conference the next day the guy who wrote it said: ‘What about that result last night, Brown?’ Not thinking I was going to get the job I said: ‘What about that shite in your paper this morning?’ Some of the other journalists were killing themselves laughing.”

Back at Italia 90, Scotland would beat Sweden in their next game but lose to Brazil and exit the World Cup. There’s a wry smile from Broon as he recalls one Tartan Army foot-soldier’s peeved reaction to the Costa Rican loss: “He got the sheet from his bed and with a jumbo felt pen had written: ‘Don’t worry, Andy, your P45’s in the post!’ We saw the banner on the coach ride to the Sweden game. The players all laughed and in an inverted way it helped everyone relax, including Andy himself, who was very sensitive. He worried if he got a bad write-up. During games sometimes he’d go: ‘What are the fans laughing at, Brown?’ I’d tell him: ‘There’s a match on, Andy, never mind about that’.”

After his own Scotland stint was over Brown tried club management in England with Preston North End, when the revelation he was flat-sharing with assistant Billy Davies led to predictable, mirthful speculation that the pair were sat up in bed in their striped pyjamas like Morecambe and Wise discussing tactics. By then in his sixties he surprised English journos encountering him for the first time with his boundless enthusiasm and a crinkly-eyed smile which has never dimmed.

He told them he’d only quit football when he “stopped being an adolescent” and he’s still a big kid about the game, happily fulfilling his duties as a non-executive director with Aberdeen. At Firhill last Saturday, after McLeish thanked him for his warm approval of the latter’s appointment as national supremo for a second time, Brown couldn’t resist marking Big Eck’s card on potential recruits. “I see he’s listened to me about one player but also gone for a guy I don’t really fancy!”

Brown repeats something he says often, that he’s “the luckiest guy in Scotland” for having seen our thistle-breasted lads take the stage at five tournaments, from being invited along by Alex Ferguson for Mexico ’86 to leading the team to France 12 years later. “Alongside the three World Cups are two European Championships. Those were Andy and me and yet the cynics, the tabloid boys, used to say: ‘Aye, two schoolteachers.’ Well, maybe teachers can make not bad managers because these have been our only Euros. There’s an arrogance about us not having been at more or maybe it’s a snobbery but we don’t have any entitlement.”

The Tartan Army in his day, he says, could be “critical but actually quite forgiving” and “demanding but funny with it”. The P45 banner was an example of that, while Brown was on the receiving end of his own merry abuse after racy revelations about his private life. “The News of the World had me on the front page as a ‘love cheat’. I got shouts of ‘Craig, Craig, where’s the birds?’ Then, during a dire game in Poland, it was: ‘Shagger Brown, Shagger Brown… ’

He considers the Broon-Roxy double-act some more. Though they’re not much in touch these days, there was no fall-out. Although the partnership worked well, they were definitely different. “Andy was a gentleman and also bit of a panicker. One time heading to Hampden for a night game, the bus got stuck in traffic in Cumbernauld. I remember this as the moment mobiles entered our lives because Andy shouted out: ‘Any of you guys got one of these new phones… you know, they don’t need plugged in?’ There was silence but then: ‘Aye, me.’ It was Roy Aitken. ‘Let’s have it then, Roy.’ ‘Nah, it’s in my bag in the hold.’ So Andy yelled: ‘Driver, stop!’ The mobile was a brick – with what seemed to be a 3ft aerial. But we contacted the police to request an escort and that was the famous evening when we beat France 2-0.”

Footballers and their accoutrements, eh? Brown remembers when it was him and four Rangers notables – Bobby Shearer, Eric Caldow, Davie Wilson and Doug Baillie – sharing a car every day from Hamilton to Ibrox. Though Brown himself never made the Gers first team, the experience was instructive for the future manager of big names. “I wasn’t in awe of these star players, they were just guys with the same worries and failings as you or I. Despite their reputations, footballers are very insecure and that was certainly true back then before the end of the maximum wage.”

So how as a boss did he handle the glamour boys from England and the Old Firm? He laughs. “My youngest son John once said: ‘Dad you think it’s important for the players to have good behaviour, apologise to the ref and thank the ballboys – you should prioritise a victory!’ Right away I took that as a compliment: look at the ’98 World Cup, our team arriving in their kilts to play Brazil and looking immaculate. Then every shirt tucked into shorts, socks pulled up with no tape on them. Stevie Nicol was terrible one for the tape. ‘You look like a trotting pony,’ I told him. ‘We all use tape at Liverpool,’ he said. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you’re not playing for a pub team now!’

“But you know, when a manager emphasises discipline he can do it with a smile. Maybe I was a bit too concerned about turnout, courtesy and the guys not leaving the dining hall like a bomb had just hit it.”

Does he think distance has lent enchantment to his record with Scotland, that he’s been better appreciated in this long spell of under-achievement and non-qualification?

Now the smile is wistful: “I think there was enough credit going around at the time but you tended not to milk it.” Anyway, it’s all about Big Eck now.

Back at Dundee, Brown and four team-mates formed a pop group, calling themselves Hammy and the Hamsters. “Alex Hamilton was the one who could sing; I was only there to look good on the record sleeves!” he quips. Their bid for the Hit Parade was titled My Dream Come True and for Brown right now that would be McLeish leading Scotland back to the big time. “I’m delighted Alex is there,” he affirms. “I’ve known him for a long time and he’s one of the good guys. He has a lot of substance and is no pushover.

“He’s intelligent and ideal for the job. Some of the Tartan Army grumble about the fact he left it before and went to England but I like to think he has unfinished business with the national team.”

Now Brown must be going; he wants to brush up on his funny stories. This is essential for anyone sharing top-table duties with The Doc, although he could do worse than offer up some more of the rough banter which used to come his way. “When I was playing for Falkirk – and playing badly – the cry rang out: ‘Christ, Brown, you’re murder. Come up here and watch yourself!’

“But my favourite tale told against myself comes at Celtic Park with 
Dundee winning, believe it or not, when the home support were far from happy. It was a dreich day and the ball bounced out of play and landed in this giant puddle. As I waited for the poor ballboy to fish it out I heard this guy in the crowd groan: ‘This is the worst game I’ve ever seen.’ Feeling cocky because of the scoreline, although that didn’t last, I said: ‘Well, you paid to get in’. Then his mate piped up: ‘You’ll be effing paying next season, you clown!’”