A better illustration for those lamenting how football has changed might be how the European Cup has mutated into the sprawling competition we recognise today. This development dates to the 1991-92 season and with the creation of a group stage.
It’s worth noting this when celebrating Scott Brown’s remarkable ascent to the top of Scotland’s Champions League (née European Cup) appearance table, confirmed by his presence in the heart of Celtic’s midfield against Anderlecht last night. He has eclipsed Kenny Dalglish, another darling of the east end of Glasgow, in the arid flatlands of statistics at least. He has played 69 games to Dalglish’s 68.
Brendan Rodgers insisted the achievement deserves to be acknowledged and of course it does. Last night underlined why – if not in the way Brown might have preferred. Anderlecht might be very much a fourth-tier team in the competition but even then their class was plain to see. Brown will be happy to avoid seeing the exceptionally talented Sofiane Hanni ever again on his travels be it in this competition or elsewhere. It was a battle royale between the two captains in the middle of the park.
While clearly lacking in the Algerian’s technical ability Brown stuck to his task in the manner that’s helped earn him his status as Scotland’s Champions League expert, even if he has some way to go to reach Spanish keeper Iker Casillas’ all-time record of 166 games.
When Rodgers chose to make the necessary half-time alterations to seek to interrupt the flow of Anderlecht attacks it was Brown’s fellow midfielder Stuart Armstrong who gave way. Olivier Ntcham came on to offer Brown stout support, while Tom Rogic’s ball retention skills were also called for over Scott Sinclair’s more direct running.
Brown wiped his glistening brow at the start of the second half and prepared to go once more against the more than capable Belgians. The point is that Hanni is the standard of player Brown has been jousting with in so many of his Champions League excursions. And while good, the Anderlecht skipper is not even in the top strata.
Anyone seeking to compile a highlights reel of Brown’s Champions League performances across the years will exclude footage of him being embarrassed by Lionel Messi at Celtic Park last year. “Messi ending Brown’s career in one gif” is how one person titled the clip on Twitter where the Celtic midfielder is seen making contact only with fresh air. The thing is, it didn’t end his career. Brown could play another few seasons at this level. He has already operated in the midfield hothouse at a rarefied level for longer than anyone could have imagined when he signed for Celtic just over a decade ago.
Even though he cost £4.4 million – still a record fee between two Scottish clubs – the notion we might one day be moved to make a comparison between Brown and Dalglish would have seemed risible. Perhaps it still is. For Brown has not and presumably never will delicately chip in a European Cup-winning goal. Nor has he lifted the trophy on three occasions in total, like the inspirational Dalglish. But Brown is doing what he can do in a different era for both Scottish football and Europe’s premier club competition. He has made the best of himself to a startling degree even if he has not stamped his name across the European firmament in the way Dalglish did for Liverpool latterly but also Celtic. Indeed, it’s surprising to note that of Dalglish’s 68 European Cup games, 21 of them were in the hoops of Celtic and included two semi-final ties.
But Brown’s record of two appearances at the last-16 stage of the competition is not to be sniffed at. Neither of course are 69 games in total, even if some of them are preliminary ties of the sort Dalglish did not have to concern himself with at Anfield. Indeed, Liverpool only played seven games in total en route to lifting the jug-eared trophy in 1978, secured in such memorable fashion against the Belgians of Bruges by Dalglish at Wembley.
Brown’s appointment with another team from Belgium last night was his 12th appearance in the competition this season alone. Sadly, though he led an exhausted-looking Celtic into the Europa League, he won’t play another one. Not in this campaign at least.
But it’s almost guaranteed he will pass the 70-game mark next season, by which time he could well have earned his 15th and 16th major honour with Celtic. It’s surely all enough for Fife Council to begin preparing that planning application for another statue in Brown’s home village of Hill of Beath.