Scott Brown’s journey to becoming Scottish football’s first centurion in European football began 14 years ago with an assist for a late Hibs equaliser in a low-key Intertoto Cup fixture at Easter Road.
As he reaches his 100th appearance in continental club competition tonight, the Celtic captain hopes to mark the occasion by leading his team a significant step closer to again appearing on the biggest stage of them all in the Champions League group stage.
Brown has come a long way since the July afternoon in 2004 when, as a still raw teenager, he set up Garry O’Connor’s goal for Hibs against Lithuanian side Vetra in the first leg of an Intertoto tie they would lose 2-1 on aggregate.
He has long since eclipsed the previous Scottish record of 82 European appearances, set by former Rangers captain Barry Ferguson, and appears to have a fair bit of mileage left in the tank to add to his tally.
After 73 Champions League matches, 22 in the Uefa Cup/Europa League and four in the Intertoto, Brown still has a few bucket-list items he would like to tick off – running out at the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid is among them, while he also harbours hopes of emulating the Celtic side of 2003 in making it all the way to a European final.
For the moment, however, the 33-year-old’s focus is firmly fixed on helping Celtic put themselves in a commanding position when they take on AEK Athens in the first leg of their Champions League third qualifying-round tie in Glasgow this evening.
“You wouldn’t have put money on me getting to 100 European games when I first started,” said Brown with a grin. “I can hardly even remember that first one against Vetra or what the score was.
“Seriously, it’s a great honour to become the first Scot to reach 100 games in Europe but for me this is all about getting into the Champions League and being involved in the group stages. That’s when it counts more.
“My bucket list is basically to keep playing as long as possible. I feel as fit and healthy as ever, so trying to get into the Champions League every year is the main one.
“But it was exceptional when the team got to a European final in 2003. There were incredible scenes in Seville with all our fans and it would be amazing to do something like that. I don’t see why we couldn’t still do it. Our aim is also to go as far as we can in the Champions League. We’ve reached the last 16 under Neil Lennon and Gordon Strachan so that’s the big push for us. I’ve been to most of the big stadiums in Europe now but the Bernabeu is one missing from the list. I’d love to do it in the Champions League. If not, I’ll definitely be taking the kids on the stadium tour once I’ve hung up my boots!”
While Brown was reluctant to spend too much time down memory lane as he gets set for the task in hand against Greek champions AEK, he did reflect on both the toughest opponent he has faced in Europe and his favourite match from the 99 he has played so far.
“Andres Iniesta was the best,” he replied without hesitation. “It was an honour to play against him in games against Barcelona and, if not get past him, then at least have a good battle with him.
“The way he turned and faced you as soon as he received the ball was phenomenal. When he was in his prime, he was up there with the best players in the world. That’s why I came to Celtic, to play against some of the best in the world and it’s why I’m still here. I want to get into the group stage of the Champions League again this season and play against some more of them. I think my favourite game in Europe was probably beating AC Milan 2-1 in the Champions League at Celtic Park in 2007. It was a game with everything.
“I played up front alongside Scott McDonald who scored a 90th minute winner after Gary Caldwell – big fat heid – had a shot saved. Gordon Strachan had told me just to be a pain in the arse for Milan by running about, closing them down, putting them under pressure and forcing them into mistakes. But I was up against Alessandro Nesta, one of the best defenders in the world!”
Brown’s more familiar influence at the hub of Celtic’s midfield operation will be crucial tonight against an AEK side who, despite having yet to play a competitive fixture this season, are regarded by manager Brendan Rodgers as a step up from previous qualifying opponents Alashkert and Rosenborg.
“They are a good side, I have to say, having watched their games closely over the past few days,” said Rodgers. “They are the champions of their country so that means they have that winning mentality. It’s another step for us, definitely, in terms of opponent.
“They play 4-4-2 but very compact, very tight, and when they win the ball they break forward very, very quickly. They have good pace at the front of the field and at the sides. So it will be a really good examination for us over two legs.
“If we can come out of this game here with a victory to a clean sheet it would be a really good result. But we will have to work really, really hard to show our qualities.
“But we also have an inherent belief in our work. I think these games are where you need real concentration, but the players have shown over a number of games that they are also a good side and we obviously want to take advantage of the first leg being at home.”