Interview: Pilgrim’s progress for Craig Brewster

Have boots will travel... the man of many clubs Craig Brewster now feels ‘good vibes’ in Devon where his partnership with manager Derek Adams has guided Plymouth Argyle to top of the English League Two

Double training sessions and a healthy lifestyle have been part of the philosophy Craig Brewster and Derek Adams have introduced at Plymouth Argyle. Picture: Getty

If Teddy Sheringham was England’s version, then Craig Brewster was the Scottish equivalent. I’m talking about big strikers who weren’t big strikers, at least not in the traditional sense. Their height was not their principal asset. Ye olde medieval battering-ram would have been a hugely inaccurate and insulting description for these guys. They played with their heads but really in a cerebral sense, crafting attacks with artful passing and movement. So in the week that Sheringham re-registered for action it’s a bit disappointing to find that Brewster isn’t doing the same.

Come on, man, I want to say, what’s wrong with you? You’re only 48, a year younger than Sheringham – don’t you want to get back out there, show the young bucks some deftness and longevity? “Aye well, good for Teddy,” he says, in Dundonian tones undisturbed by four and a half years spent in England’s deep south. He says he’s nowhere near fit enough; I say I don’t believe him. He concedes he “still does a bit” in terms of training, although not as much as before the emergence of a dodgy hip. But age never withered Brewster all the way through his 30s and beyond. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s bluffing.

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Brewster is the footballer whose full-time career began late and then just went on and on and on. His management career has involved some abrupt, juddering conclusions, but that’s management for you. Right now, though, he sits at the top of England’s League Two with Plymouth Argyle as assistant to Derek Adams.

Sheringham is a division rival as boss of Stevenage who beat Brewster’s Pilgrims at the start of the season, but the Scots pair have since put that setback behind them. Today they take a break from league action for the FA Cup, welcoming Carlisle United to Home Park and hoping to win the first-round tie at the first time of asking.

“If not, we’d be as well setting off for the replay a minute before the final whistle,” he jokes. “Plymouth to Carlisle is the longest journey you can make in the Football League – a 780-mile round-trip. We played them in the at our place a few weeks back – on a Tuesday night which was hard on them and their fans. But almost every game’s a journey for Argyle. The return league game up there is 2 January so that’s our New Year’s Day sorted: a magical mystery tour the entire length of the country.” Any sensible Argyle man, if they don’t want to get roped into an epic game of I-Spy, will be organising his mixtapes now.

The once-great maritime city of Plymouth is undergoing a reinvention because it can no longer be so dependent on its docks, but on the day Brewster and I speak a report in the Guardian enthusing about the world’s most advanced wave tank is forced to admit this is a place “tucked away in the far-left corner of England which has the feeling of somewhere too often left to fend for itself”.

Does it seem that way to him? “Well, it’s remote for sure, but the waterfront is smart, the old naval docks are fascinating and the city has a good vibe. In football you go where you’re wanted. That can be some far-out-of-the-way places but I like Plymouth. Don’t forget I’ve been right down in the south of England, with Crawley and then Brighton, for a while now. If I miss hills after the Highlands then Cornwall isn’t too far but when I get time off I head over to near Gatwick to see the wife and kids. One of my stepsons, Alex, is 12 and settled at school so Annette and I don’t want to move him. That’s the only drawback to being here, missing the family. I’ve seen me, if there’s been a couple of accidents on the motorway, take seven hours to get across the country.”

Brewster and Adams forged this partnership at Ross County when our man was briefly the No 2 at Victoria Park. It’s interesting to speculate on how it functions. The average punter back up the road in Scotland – that is, the average fitba cynic – will remember Brewster’s adherence to fitness and conditioning, the belief that a footballer’s body should be seen as his temple. They’ll remember that Adams is an actual Christian (and one who once told your correspondent that he never swears). Then the punter/cynic will conclude: “That’s it: they’re a right pair of puritans who were made for each other.”

Brewster laughs at the description. “Derek still doesn’t swear,” he says. “Listen, I think you get guys who complement each other in management and that’s Derek and me. He’s dedicated himself to football, as have I. We work well together and when the day’s done he has his life and I have my family. We both think and do things in the same way. We want the best for our players and we work them hard and push them hard to see where that can take them.”

Not many Scots have made the long journey with the duo to the most southerly club in Britain, also the most westerly. Gregg Wylde is the only one, although Graham Carey, Lee Cox and Jake Jervis have all passed through Scotland on their travels. “I told Derek that I thought Plymouth were a really good club for his first job in England,” adds Brewster. “They got to the play-offs last season so the nucleus was there and he’s since added some quality.”

Is Plymouth a football town? No less of one, you imagine, than Inverness or Dingwall or even Dundee when United – whom Brewster has served as a fan, player, manager and Scottish Cup-winning hero – are in the midst of one of the somewhat-less-than-bonnie periods in their history. “The last few home games we’ve had crowds of 7,500 which is good but when we played Portsmouth in what’s called the Docklands Derby there were 12,500 here making a cracking atmosphere, even though the two places are three hours apart. So, yes, I think they do like their football in Plymouth.”

Intriguingly, the player reckoned to be Argyle’s greatest-ever was a Scot. Sammy Black came down to Devon from Kirkintilloch Rob Roy in 1924 and scored a club record 182 goals from outside-left. An obvious pick for the all-time XI chosen by fans in the centenary years – which also featured Paul Mariner with Paul Sturrock as the supporters’ choice for manager – Black was nicknamed the “Mighty Atom”. But would his habit of always having a cigarette tucked behind his ear have ruled him out of ever featuring in an Adams/Brewster side?

After all, Plymouth have climbed the mast to the crow’s nest of League Two with the help of double training sessions. “We get the boys back in the afternoons,” confirms Brewster. “I don’t think they were doing that before.” He highlights this as a good example of how manager and assistant are simpatico: Thou shalt eat pasta for lunch and train some more.

The Scotland Brewster has left behind seems more receptive to the philosophy of prepare-well-live well-play well after he sometimes struggled to impart it. Robbie Neilson has had success with double and even triple training sessions and six-day weeks at Hearts while Celtic’s Ronny Deila seeks a team of perfect physical specimens.

Does Brewster feel vindicated? “Well, I think there’s always been sound evidence that if you work hard you’ll get good reward.” The way the story’s written about his first spell in charge of Inverness Caley Thistle – such was Brewster’s crusading zeal – that you’re left with the impression no one in the Highlands had seen fusilli before he turned up. Not quite, and that squad were receptive to his ideas. But when he moved on to Dundee Utd there was resistance to his heavy emphasis on fitness and when he was sacked from his second period at ICT, as he was from Tannadice, the likes of Ian Black complained of being tired from over-training.

Unsurprisingly, Brewster chooses to dwell on the positives. “Guys like Darren Dods and Ross Tokely from the first time at Inverness bought into what I was trying to do. Their response was: ‘How can we improve?’” Barry Wilson, dropped for being overweight, would later thank Brewster for prolonging his career. “He said I’d given him two extra years. ‘You did that yourself’, I replied. ‘I just pointed you in the right direction’.”

Brewster stresses, however, that he wasn’t always a paragon of the best conditioning and the correct footballer-fuel – as a kid at Dundee Utd, then for a good bit after that, he wolfed down fish and chips before every game. “Each Friday I took my granny a fish supper and had one myself.” Who back then knew any different? Jim McLean thought he knew that Brewster was too slow to make it and released him. He spent five years at Forfar Athletic during which it must have been inconceivable he would later enjoy another five playing in Greece. As a part-timer he ran a sports shop and worked as a sales rep flogging waste disposal and cement-mixers – hard gigs, you would imagine. “I was a shy lad but these jobs gave me a bit more confidence so I’ll always be glad I did them.” A key stepping-stone was Raith Rovers for “the absolute professionalism of Jimmy Nicholl” and then he returned to Tannadice for the best goals-to-games ratio – 40 in 90 – of his career. Not bad for a supposed slowcoach and none of them was more scruffy, or more vitally important, than the two-yard trundler which won the Arabs the 1994 Scottish Cup.

Hampden glory, though, was quickly followed by relegation. Brewster fancied a change of scene and the Bosman ruling opened the pathway for him to join Ionikos and become one of Scotland’s most successful football exports. He’d recommend playing abroad to anyone, so how come more Scots don’t try it when offered the chance, or end up back here all too soon? “I don’t know, it was just right thing for me. I was older than some of the guys who try it and maybe, through not going full-time until I was 26, I was more determined not to waste my career – to get the most from every game and every opportunity.

“Greece opened my eyes about how a footballer can and should look after himself. The Greeks were ahead of Scotland at that time on conditioning.” With the sun on his back and olive oil on his salad, Brewster loved his time with the club based in Athens’ port of Piraeus. He became a celebrity, a chat-show regular, and after Sean Connery visited the Greek capital, the 007 theme was his walk-on tune. Yes, Greece was glamorous but also grittily real. “I lived in a classy part of town but the training ground was in a very poor area. Every day you saw the passion of the people who despite their circumstances flocked to our games and supported us fanatically.”

Brewster returned to Scotland and Hibernian but his season there – a rumbustious one featuring no fewer than four managers – was disrupted by injury. Despite that he loved living in Edinburgh’s boho Stockbridge next to Hibs’ popular German enforcer Mathias Jack. “Towards the end of the season with Bobby Williamson in charge I was alongside young Garry O’Connor and playing well and looking forward to getting a new contract – but then the Sky TV money dried up.”

Brewster is sure some Hibs fans will have wondered: “What have we signed a 34-year-old for?” Just a pity, though, that O’Connor and Derek Riordan, who also emerged at that time, couldn’t have learned some good habits from the old fella to make their careers last a bit longer. “These lads were real, real talents who grasped their opportunities. But when you’re young you can get gallus and maybe start believing the hype and you don’t focus like a seasoned pro would. I’m sure if they were asked they’d say that having their time again they’d do things differently.”

Brewster moved on to Dunfermline Athletic. By then 35, he secured a three-year contract for which he thanked his employers by forming a fruitful strike partnership with Stevie Crawford which brought the latter international recognition and, the East End Park cognoscenti would contend, should have done the same for the senior partner. “Ach, Scotland were right to go with youth at that time,” he says. “Even just one cap would have been nice but I’ve no regrets about anything.”

He would surely have wished his time in charge of Dundee Utd had worked out better – “torrid” is his description of it. But, back playing, there would be a final hurrah at Aberdeen. These two from his many former clubs meet at Pittodrie today and he’ll be checking on the score after Plymouth’s game. He’s sorry for the state in which United find themselves, but only up to a point. “When they sold all their best players what did they expect would 

Like everything else that’s happened to Brewster, marriage and kids arrived late. “Committing myself to football for so long meant I made sacrifices. That was fine up to a point but then I met Annette who came with a readymade family in Alex and his big brother, Sean, which was great, and now we have a little girl, Ava, who’ll soon be three. Being an older dad I appreciate it more, just as I appreciated being an older footballer.”

I suggest that with priorities on the home front now he must be less obsessed by the game but have to say that the answer isn’t absolutely clear-cut. “Football’s still football and the cup’s still the cup,” he says of the tie with a hopefully travel-weary Carlisle.

So does he, on Argyle’s grinding excursions, regale the bus with stories about the day he won the cup? “No, never. This is all about these players, it’s their time. I just tell them to try and make it last as long as