Interview: Steve Brown, St Johnstone chairman

Perth diplomacy: Steve Brown insists he won't be dictated to by the Old Firm but has sympathy for Celtic's Peter Lawwell and believes it was 'disrespectful' and 'divisive' to have a meeting without him. Photograph: Dan Phillips
Perth diplomacy: Steve Brown insists he won't be dictated to by the Old Firm but has sympathy for Celtic's Peter Lawwell and believes it was 'disrespectful' and 'divisive' to have a meeting without him. Photograph: Dan Phillips
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WHEN Steve Brown played football, he used to like a tackle, so much so that there was many a game in the Perthshire juniors that he didn’t complete. Every time he was sent off, he would protest to the referee, only to admit later that he could see where the official was coming from. “I was on the end of a lot of bad decisions, but I think they were probably right,” he laughs.

That, as it turns out, is one of the main differences between Steve and his father, Geoff, whom he succeeded as chairman of St Johnstone in November. They have the same looks, the same business instincts and the same habit of telling it to you straight, but the younger of the two suggests that he has a trait for which his father was never renowned.

“A lot of people probably don’t see me as a diplomat, but I tend to listen to the other side more often than he would. I’ll stand my ground and argue with anybody, but I like to be educated from the other side as well. As much as you hate to admit it, there are times when you are not right.”

That quality could prove to be crucial in the weeks ahead. With Scottish Premier League clubs on the verge of civil war over voting rights, Brown is angry at how the so-called “gang of ten” have gone about it. He believes that nothing will be achieved unless they adopt a more conciliatory tone towards the Old Firm.

He says that Celtic should never have been excluded from their meeting. He is also dismayed at the position taken by some of his colleagues, including John Yorkston, the Dunfermline Athletic chairman, who claimed that the ten would consider resigning from the SPL in protest at the 11-1 majority required for change.

Brown says that Celtic or Rangers cannot be expected to give something up, as they will be asked to do at an SPL meeting on 12 April, if there is no mature dialogue between them and the rest.

“I don’t think a lot of comments in the papers have been helpful,” he says. “It has just fuelled one side against the other. I don’t want to be dictated to by two clubs, but they’re in possession and there’s a certain way to go about it in order to get what you’re looking for.

“John Yorkston came out – which is his prerogative – and said that he wants to discuss maybe having ten teams breaking away. That doesn’t interest me. I don’t see how Scottish football is ever going to gain out of that. I mean, we’re all in it together.”

Brown says that he can sympathise with Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, who said that the ten’s decision to have a meeting without him was “disrespectful” and “divisive”. “If I was in Rangers’ and Celtic’s shoes, what would I do? If ten clubs met, and didn’t invite St Johnstone, how would I feel about that? I would take the Peter Lawwell stance. It’s disrespectful.

“In my opinion, Celtic should have been at the meeting. I can understand why Rangers weren’t there because they are in administration, but if you’re needing to sort something out and you need 11, you should really sit round the table with 11.

“I don’t see a problem with the ten clubs meeting if they’re talking about things relating to the ten clubs, but if you’re going have a meeting of ten clubs to discuss what’s happening with 12 clubs ... I’m not too sure I understand the logic of that.”

Brown stresses that he does not disagree with the objectives of the ten, only their tactics. He wants more democracy, a more even distribution of money, and he believes that there are potential compromises – such as different voting majorities for different issues – but none of that, he says, will be achieved by alienating the Old Firm.

Brown says that he can see where they are coming from, just as he does the referees who red-carded him years ago. “Are you getting dictated to by two clubs? Yeah, you probably are. Do they generate 85 per cent? Yeah, they probably do. It probably gives them quite a say right enough. I don’t know how you cure it. We had the ball and we’ve given it to them. They’ve got to give something up and I just think we’re going the wrong way about it. A lot of supporters say, ‘are you siding with the Old Firm?’ but I say ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’.

“What I’m looking for is a debate with the Old Firm in which both sides recognise each other’s positions. That’s the only way it can be if any gain is to be made. Both sides digging in and not giving an inch will not make a gain. The only way we will is to sit down and talk like adults and see if we can get a compromise.”

Brown’s olive branch will be appreciated in the east end of Glasgow, where he will be this afternoon for his club’s SPL match against Celtic. It has been quite a season for St Johnstone, who are well on course for a place in Europe, and quite a season for their new chairman, who had a hard act to follow in his father.

Geoff Brown’s 25 years in charge of the club were recognised with a civic reception in Perth on Friday night. He saved St Johnstone from extinction, moved them to a new ground and made them synonymous with the kind of economic prudence that is only now appreciated in Scottish football.

His son is anxious to honour that legacy. Steve Brown, who turns 48 today, is still angry that the likes of Livingston and Gretna, spending money they didn’t have, were allowed to be successful at St Johnstone’s expense. He would like to think that the Perth club are at last entering an era when their stability will be rewarded.

“We had no debt, but unfortunately, it equated to no trophies,” says Brown. “I would love to think that it will turn in our favour, but there are still clubs spending beyond their means. Maybe on the face of it, they are not making a gain, but they are still retaining their SPL status and taking points from clubs, including ourselves, who are attempting to run things properly. These clubs have wage bills twice or three times the size of ours.”

He welcomes UEFA’s plan to introduce financial fair play, as he does the SPL’s effort to bring in tighter regulations domestically. A ten-point deduction for clubs that go into administration is all very well, but he wants more points docked, more regularly.

“If it’s been proven that a club has made an advantage by living outwith their means then that should be done as often as possible until the message gets through. The amount of points, how often it’s done ... that’s probably up for debate, but right now, you can spend beyond your means, win the league, win both cups, and nobody says boo.”

And yet, the Perth club have done remarkably well of late, quietly creeping up on third-placed Motherwell. For Brown, it is proof that exorbitant spending is not the only route to success. Steve Lomas, the club’s manager, has been badgering him to sign new players, but in the main, Brown has resisted, on one occasion dragging Lomas into an office to show him the club’s accounts.

“I’d love to have certain players at the club but I know it would be complete folly. My father didn’t do it and I have no intention of doing it either. The financial rewards are nowhere close to your outlay. If you sign a couple of players, and you go one place up the league, the money gained doesn’t cover the two players. As I told the manager, St Johnstone’s turnover is less than the average Premiership footballer.”

He and Lomas have a spiky relationship, but it is one of mutual respect, and a fair bit of fun. Only the other day, Brown wound him up by warning that, with a place in the Europa League all but secure, the target was now the Champions League.

Brown laughs and shakes his head. His club have a way to go yet before they can dig out the passports, but they have reached the stage where it is expected of them. “To be sitting here talking about being disappointed if we didn’t get into Europe ... it’s a fantastic position to be in.”

Brown is used to football trips abroad. Lithuania, Ukraine, Spain, Norway, he has been to them all in his capacity as a Tartan Army footsoldier, as well as to France 98 and Euro 2000. At Hampden, he still eschews the VIP area to occupy the cheap seats in his kilt, but he has given up the away games for fear that the press would have a field day.

If, next season, he has the chance to go there with St Johnstone, there will be no stopping him.