Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blogathon: Craig Brown revisited

Midnight. Halfway through. Normal people might be thinking about bed. Or working up to cutting some moves. Or getting enough drink in them to make a mistimed, ill-judged and futile pass at someone they've spotted across the bar.

And I'm gearing up for a night of football chat. If you've been out, got back and have some change kicking about in your pockets it would be very, very gratefully received.

The latest blogathon entry has been inspired by a Craig Brown - saint or sinner? debate that's been running on Twitter the last hour or so.

Come with me, if you will, to Tynecastle.

It's October 1998. Scotland are playing Estonia. And I'm in a purple faced fury.

Tom Boyd can barely find a man with a pass. When he does a section of the crowd applauds sarcastically. He turns, with that supercilious look he could have, and applauds right back at them.

It's a moment that inspires rage in a poor Scotland team. They look old and they look bereft of ideas. The manager doesn't seem to be doing much to change it.

Craig Brown's time was up and if I'd had the pace to get over the Tynecastle pitch I might almost have been annoyed enough to tell him that to his face.

But we came through. 3-2. It wasn't the world's best qualifying campaign but we made it to a play-off where we let Alan Shearer bully us and Paul Scholes orchestrate things at Hampden before turning a Wembley trip into another glorious failure.

We'll travel a wee bit further back.

Hampden, August 1995. Scotland are playing Greece.

It's a big game for us. Greece are qualification rivals. 71 minutes gone. No scoring. Craig Brown brings on Ally McCoist.

For reasons I've never understood my brother says "if that fat bastard scores I'll eat my hat."

Within 60 seconds we're standing to acclaim Ally the saviour and my brother has a See You Jimmy bunnet in his mouth.

Ibrox, September 1996. A World Cup qualifying game against Sweden.

John McGinlay - yes, he was once a Scotland starter - scores in the eighth minute.

Scotland, inspired by a performance of quite astonishing brilliance by Jim Leighton, hold out. We're far from on our way to France 98. But it's a good way to start.

A 3-2 win against a team we should have being beating with a certain ease.

And two 1-0 wins over teams that probably thought they had a hell of a chance of beating us.

That was the Craig Brown Scotland era.

We could be dully ineffective, we could be dully effective. And occasionally we could set the pulses racing.

But he got results.

Euro 96, France 98. A play off for Euro 2000.

It wasn't a bad record.

Was he a dull manager? He could be. But it worked and it used the players he had at his disposal effectively. Often it used them in a way that amplified their strengths.

He was loyal to players. But they were loyal to him in return. It worked.

My own view is he should have bowed out after that night at Wembley.

Some players could have been shuffled into retirement with him but the new man would have inherited at least the nucleus of a team.

Take a look at some of the players that made his squad for Euro 96. Not only did he qualify with that lot, he almost took them through the group stage.

There were bad nights - Morocco in St Etienne was a brutal way for us to say goodbye to international football - but there were good times as well.

He took a team with a proud qualification record and he extended it.

He did, in other words, the job expected of him.

It's not just revisionists that have him down as a roundhead subduing a nation of cavaliers.

He was accused of that at the time.

But nobody that's come along after him has managed to emulate what he achieved.

He had a thing against youngsters. Hmmm. What greats of the period missed out because of a Brown grudge. None, I think, spring readily to mind.

He could perhaps have expected the youth team that reached the world final in 1989 to have provided the backbone of his senior team. What happened to them?

Too often we blame the manager when it's our systems that are rotten.

Craig Brown gave us Euro 96 and France 98. Yes, they ended sourly, but what we'd give to be reliving them now.

You don't miss the water until the well runs dry. Well, here's my blogathon admission:

I still miss avuncular Craig in his Scotland tracksuit.

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This hour of the blogathon was brought to you by the Hibs Club.