Scott Brown's schooldays

THE longest of journeys start with the smallest of steps. Pupils at Hill of Beath Primary in Fife are reminded of this each morning they pass by Jim Baxter's statue on their way through the school gates.

With Baxter and Scott Brown, two Scotland international footballers, among the alumni, they need not look far for inspiration. It appears to be woven into the fabric of life in this old mining community.

Take Dylan Campbell, a primary 5 pupil whose dreams are pinned on the wall outside the head teacher's office. He doesn't mention football, but he has goals all the same. Dylan wants to be a professional photographer and own a BMW.

"I want to travel to Mexico, New York and Australia's biggest jungle," he writes, "and after that I might be in the world records as the youngest person to go there. I would be ecstatic."

Who could blame the Hill of Beath pupils for being wide-eyed dreamers? This, after all, is the school where, not so long ago, Brown first stepped foot on a football field, beginning a journey that has taken him from Hill of Beath to Celtic Park. Baxter, before him, came from the same humble roots to Ibrox.

Next month, Brown will take to the Amsterdam Arena, fronting up to the Netherlands as the pivot at the heart of Scotland's midfield in a crucial World Cup qualifier. Next week, he'll be playing for Celtic against St Mirren in the quarter- finals of the Homecoming Scottish Cup.

The oldest national cup competition in the world had already been contested for 16 seasons when the first register was taken at Hill of Beath Primary School in February 1890. Yesterday evening, excited boys and girls in the village would have been telling parents what it feels like to get their hands on the famous old trophy. It sure beats the three times table.

A normal Thursday morning would perhaps involve reading and writing. But any Hill of Beath boy or girl running low on inspiration was topped up yesterday morning by a visit from Sky Sports News to film them with the Cup before being put through their paces by SFA development officers. "They're very excited," remarked Anne Headrick, headmistress at the school for the past eight years and Brown's football 'manager' long before Gordon Strachan. "One boy asked if the blue ribbons meant Rangers had already won it. I had to tell him the blue ribbons represent Homecoming Scotland.

"They're all interested to see what's going on. There's a strong football tradition in the village. Hill of Beath Hawthorn juniors play just behind the school, and Jim Baxter's statue is at the front next to the working men's club. This village has real football fever. All the boys will be able tell you about Jim Baxter. I think because the statue is there, they all asked about him. His story has been passed down from fathers and grandfathers."

The statue erected in Baxter's honour was unveiled in April 2003, two years after the former Raith Rovers, Rangers, Sunderland, Nottingham Forest and Scotland player lost his battle against cancer. Brown, by then breaking into the team at Hibernian, has always shared Baxter's self-confidence. Indeed, he once quipped of "wanting to go one better than" the man famously remembered for brazenly toying with England at Wembley in 1967.

In the school's main corridor, the most prominent fixture on the wall is a sign with bold print reminding pupils that "at Hill of Beath we respect others; we respect ourselves". It is a dictum Brown subscribes to. He admires Baxter for what he achieved; most importantly he believes in himself. If one word could sum up Hill of Beath's most famous footballing sons, it would be 'gallus'. The house Brown grew up in is directly opposite the school and the lifesize sculpture of Baxter with a ball at his feet. Brown, in fact, could see it from his window. The connection between the two runs deeper than their school.

"I've got a couple of pictures of him because my grandfather knew his family," Brown once recalled.

Baxter was nicknamed "our wizard" at school, such was his natural skill with a leather ball, and Mrs Headrick says she was convinced from the moment she set eyes on Brown that he would follow a similar path. "When I first came to Hill of Beath, almost 20 years ago now, I took the football team," she recalled. "I knew then that there was a strong football tradition. I was the football manager for quite a few years, including when Scott was here. I knew we had this reputation to keep up, with Jim Baxter being a famous player.

"Scott was unusual in that he played in the football team from a very early age. Most children become a team member in primary six or seven, but Scott was in the team much earlier on. He was superb, Right from the word go, he was a star. I always knew he going to go far. He hasn't been back, but because it's a small village we keep a fairly close link with the family. He was going to come and present our prizes one year, but it actually coincided with his very first day at Celtic Park."

As they waited in line for their turn to touch the trophy yesterday, Hill of Beath pupils indulged excitedly in a spot of name-dropping, one boasting he has met Brown. Not to be outdone, another pointed out that he had met the entire Cowdenbeath team.

To its credit, the Scottish Government's sponsorship of the Scottish Cup aims to do more than spread the word about Homecoming 2009. It's also about making young people across the country feel part of it. This week the trophy has been paraded in primary schools in Falkirk, Hamilton and Aberdeen. Today is Paisley's turn.

For some of the 145 pupils at Hill of Beath, getting their hands on the Scottish Cup may just be the inspiration they need to start a long journey following in the footsteps of Baxter and Brown.

Or maybe they don't need inspiration in this little pocket of Fife. As Mrs Headrick says, "it's in the water".