Craig Brown: Working with Shankly, Ferguson and a life in football management

Photos courtesy of Craig Brown

You are currently retired as a professional manager?

Yes, I retired seven years ago as a manager and a short time before my retirement my friend Sir Alex Ferguson rang me to say, “Do you know you are the oldest manager in Scotland?” At that time I was ‘only’ 72 years old and then he rang me a week or two later to say I was the oldest club manager in Britain. In the next phone call he told me I was the oldest club manager in Europe. “Giovanni Trapattoni beats you but he is an international manager.” I thought Alex was trying to tell me something and we were joking together.

My colleague Archie Knox was complaining about arthritis in his hip and my knees were killing me. It can be really cold in Aberdeen especially during winter training so we told the excellent Chairman, Stewart Milne, that we would like to retire at the end of the season and the appropriate announcement was made. A couple of weeks later who retired from Manchester United? Sir Alex Ferguson, because I deduced he did not want the dubious honour of being the oldest manager.

He is 18 months younger than I am and we also played together in the Scottish under 18 national team. In fact played in the Scottish under 18 team two years running with two guys who have won the European Cup, the first one as a player and the other as a manager. The player was Billy McNeill of Celtic and Sir Alex Ferguson was Manchester United manager. The interesting thing is that you retain these friendships over the years. I maintained a very long association with the late Billy McNeil and of course with Sir Alex Ferguson. It was great to keep the friendship going over all the years but in football there is a pleasing tendency for that to happen.

You played for among others Dundee and Falkirk. How do you reflect on your own career and do you have any particular highlights or memories?

I would say that my playing time was quite indifferent and it certainly was not a star studded career. I was a very good youth player and the pattern then was that you played at school, perhaps also with a youth team, and then if a senior team signed you they would put you out for experience to what is called in Scotland a Junior team. This was semi professional and full of very tough, experienced guys, many reinstated from the senior grade.

Of the famous Celtic FC team that won the European Cup in 1974 ten of the eleven played Junior football and nowadays that would be the fifth or sixth tier in Scotland. Kenny Dalglish played for Cumbernauld Juniors. Steve Charmers played for Ashfield Juniors. Billy McNeill played for Blantyre Victoria, Jimmy Johnstone for Blantyre Celtic, etc, etc.

I was a good youth player and I joke that my career after that was all downhill. I received a lot of offers and with hindsight I made a mistake by signing for Rangers. I was not good enough as an 18 year old to make the grade there and was sent out to play Junior football with a team called Coltness United. I was playing well enough to get selected for the Scottish International Junior squad but then after three years at Glasgow Rangers I sustained an injury and amazingly for a club of Rangers’ size they did not have a qualified physiotherapist. They had a remedial gymnast, a nice chap called Davie Kinnear who put me on a weights’ programme that was tending to aggravate the injury. I was never really fully fit thereafter.

I then got invited to Dundee on loan although loans were not too common then. The manager was Bob Shankly the brother of legendary manager Bill Shankly. After playing six months on loan I signed permanently for Dundee having never played for Rangers first team. In those days Rangers were invincible really and along with Celtic they still are the two big teams in Scotland. I spent five and a half years at Dundee and I managed to play enough games to get a league championship medal in 1961/62 season when we won the Scottish Championship with a great team including Alan Gilzean who later was transferred to Tottenham Hotspur for a then big fee of £72,000, and Ian Ure who also was sold to London, Arsenal in his case, for a similar fee.

Also in the team we had Alex Hamilton, Bobby Cox, Andy Penman , Bobby Wishart, Alan Cousin, Hugh Robertson and Gordon Smith, a famous winger who already had won the Scottish Championship with Hibernian and Bobby Seith who won the English Championship with Burnley FC. I was a bit part player and in an era with no substitutes we won the League using only 15 players.

The next season we got to the semi-final of European Cup having beaten German Champions, FC Cologne, humiliating them 8-1 in the home leg. Next we beat Sporting Lisbon then RSC Anderlecht before losing in the semi-final to AC Milan. After four knee operations I got a transfer to Falkirk FC to become a part- time footballer and full- time PE teacher. My senior career was a bit indifferent. I would not say it was an illustrious playing time but it was very enjoyable especially travelling across Europe to play the games which stood me in good stead when I became Scottish National team manager.

I was not overawed going to some of the big cities in Europe with the Scottish National team as I had already been there with Dundee and I realised that we do not need to be afraid to go to Brussels, Lisbon or even Cologne in Germany. It was a a good experience as a young guy as was the privilege of being in the same dressing room as international players at Rangers and Dundee.

You mentioned Scotland. You managed your country for eight years. How do you look back on that time and what are your highlights and memories from international football?

As I said I had been around international players during my playing career and I knew that players had insecurities the same as everybody has. The uniniatiated think that because you are an international player you are confident, secure and wealthy and in actual fact even at the top level in those days players needed reassurance.

It is a bit different now because in England it’s awash with money but in those days you had to get a bonus to get a little extra and I found that players are ordinary guys and not superhuman individuals. When Sir Alex Ferguson first invited me into the dressing room of the Scottish team to go to Mexico in 1986 we had players like Graeme Souness, Gordon Strachan, Steve Nicol and I was not hesitant nor nervous when I was doing a training session because I knew they were just ordinary guys who like to be happy and do their work.

It was a huge privilege obviously to manage my country and it is the last thing I thought I would do but I was the under 21 manager and in Scotland in those days we did everything on the cheap because as under 21 manager I was also assistant manager of the Scottish National team. I told you how friendships last and Sir Alex invited me to be with the staff in Mexico. Jock Stein died and they gave the job temporarily to Sir Alex who was then Aberdeen manager. He was looking around for coaching staff and he took three of us, Archie Knox. Walter Smith and Craig Brown.

For me it was a great honour because at that time I was only manager of a part time semi-pro team, Clyde FC, and was also a Lecturer at a College of Education. I loved the phone call I received at lunch time there one day. Sir Alex called me Broon and I recognised the voice when he said to me, “Broon, how would you like the holiday of a lifetime? We’re going to Mexico and I would like you to join the staff.”

My reply was that I would love to but I have got a job and I didn’t think it would be possible to get off work. He suggested I ask for unpaid leave of absence and see if I would be excused. He followed on by saying that we have got three games to play over there but we will not let that interfere with our enjoyment! The Governors of the College of Education kindly granted me permission to go. They thought it was an honour to be with the Scottish team and that started my journey with the Scottish FA.

Sir Alex Ferguson was offered the Scotland job but he wanted to remain in Club football. I don’t think it is generally known but it was rumoured that both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur had made inquiries about him and that he told both clubs he would make a decision after the World Cup. Both clubs thought there was a chance of being let down so they went and got other managers in George Graham and David Pleat. Sir Alex was a little bemused and I remember him lying by the swimming pool thinking he would happily go back to Aberdeen.

In about September Manchester United were doing poorly and Chairman, Martin Edwards, allegedly spoke to Gordon Strachan and I’m sure Gordon would say to him if you want to put a stick of dynamite through this football club get him down here and he will give you success, but if you want a calm, peaceful existence leave him at Aberdeen FC. I think Martin Edwards took the advice and brought him to Manchester United from Aberdeen FC and the rest is history.

Andy Roxburgh got the Scotland job and he invited me to join him as his assistant and he also gave me sole charge of the under 21 team The fixtures in those days matched so that the senior team was playing usually on a Wednesday and the U 21 the night before.

This was very convenient for the flights. I enjoyed doing that for seven years and I also took youth teams as I was full time with the Scottish FA and we had very good young talent then. We got to the FIFA Youth World Cup final in 1989 but lost on a penalty shoot-out to Saudi Arabia and we also reached the semi final of the UEFA U 21 Championship and the quarter final of the FIFA U 20 World Cup in Chile. While coaching these teams I was building a good relationship with all the younger players and was relatively successful. That helped when I replaced Andy Roxburgh when he retired and the Scottish FA gave me the job, much to my surprise I must admit. I was very fortunate and I believe the luckiest man in football because I am still in football eight years after retiring from management at 72 years of age, having been a Director and now Club Ambassador of Aberdeen F C. I considered my life in football an enormous privilege and I am conscious of how lucky I have been.

Quite often national team managers receive overtures to manage foreign clubs, Did you ever receive any overtures to manage any European clubs during your managerial career?

The answer to that is no. But if you count English teams as European teams I got a call from a couple of English teams and each Chairman said if this conversation does not interest you would you agree that this talk has not taken place, which I did. Two very reputable Clubs asked if I would come to manage them and I thought that might have been a good idea as they were in the Premier League and doing well.

However after very little deliberation, I decided to honour my contract with the Scottish F A. After finishing the Scotland national team job I went to Preston North End enticed by a lovely guy called Tony Scholes who was the Chief Executive and now is in the same role at Stoke City. England is now much more wealthy than when I was managing and at that time money could not have tempted me anyway.

I loved my job with the Scottish FA. I had four qualification successes for World Cup and European Championships, two assisting Andy Roxburgh and two as manager, ably assisted by Alex Miller. We got out of the qualification group three out of four times and the only time we did not get out of the group I was so embarrassed that I actually resigned.

Scotland have not qualified for a tournament since the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. If you look back maybe I was at bit hasty and the Scottish FA might not have sacked me. I spent eight years with the national team managing 70 games and in 50 of them we were unbeaten which was a good record.

I remember the words from the highly respected Chief Executive, Ernie Walker, who told me that we must qualify for Euro 96 because it is in England. We played ten qualifying games and we only conceded three goals. We also had the same qualifying record for 1998 World Cup in France, again conceding only 3 times in 10 matches, and our 3-5-2 system enabled us always to play with two strikers.

When we played the Netherlands we had to play a back four because they had three upfront and two wingers in their 3-4-3 system under Gus Hiddink. Scotland have only every been to two European Championships, in 1992 in Sweden and 1996 in England, and I was the assistant at one and manager of the other. In a 12 year period I was at five major tournaments with Scotland and that is why I say I am the luckiest guy in football. To work in the European arena all those years was a delight and I just feel so grateful that it happened for me.

You also managed Aberdeen. How do you look back on your time managing the club and do you have any special highlight or memories from your time at the club?

After Tony Scholes tempted me down to Preston North End I thought I had retired after my stint there as I was 62 years old and I didn’t need to work. I am not that wealthy but I am comfortable enough. I also worked at Fulham as an international representative and then at Derby County having an intriguing, but rewarding, job in football with the title of Football Consultant. Billy Davies, who was my colleague at Deepdale, was the manager and he invited me to come and join him at Derby County. Having over-achieved by beating West Bromwich Albion in the play-off final Derby did not last long in the Premier League and Billy, unfairly I feel, was sacked. I left with him, retired again, and returned to Scotland.

Soon after coming north I was asked to go to help out temporarily at Motherwell F C who had sacked their Manager, so having been Assistant Manager there with Willie McLean in the mid-seventies the job was tempting as I had a soft spot for the Steelmen. I enlisted the aid of an outstanding colleague, Archie Knox, and we managed to qualify for Europe and reach the the play-off stages of the Europa Cup. It was quite a good achievement and we did well at Motherwell having the best percentage win record of any Motherwell management team in the top level league in Scotland. Only Davie Hay surpasses that but it was in the league below.

Aberdeen then came in for us and I could not believe at the age I was that such a thing would happen. My job at Aberdeen was to save them from relegation because they were bottom of the league having only 10 points after 16 games and having lost 9-0 to Celtic and 5-0 to Hearts. We stabilised Aberdeen and managed to stay up reasonably comfortably but in spite of twice having 13 game unbeaten runs (one of 15 if two friendlies are included, one the Neil Simpson Testimonial against Manchester United, and the other against Stavanger in Norway), we never got the Dons into Europe which was a disappointment.

After that Archie Knox and I retired from our work with the team but I was very fortunate to be invited to continue as a Director, before currently becoming official Club Ambassador. I thoroughly enjoy my time at Aberdeen, a super club, and there is tremendous local goodwill towards the football club which Archie and I share. Sir Alex Ferguson made them famous and everybody who has been since Sir Alex has struggled because of the success that he had and they expect the same.

Finally Craig. You accrued and awful lot of experience as a player and a manager. How do you believe the game had changed from when you played to the game in the current day?

I anticipated you asking such a question and possibly the biggest change is that when I was playing there were no substitutes. The change there is dramatic to the extent that in FIFA and UEFA Championship Finals no fewer than 23 players are stripped. There are more on the bench than on the field. This produces a management problem because the last thing you want is what I call ‘sulking substitutes’. Not only are playing squads much larger there is a significant increase in the technical staff and technology with sport science to the fore. The money in the game has enabled people and clubs to sign foreign players which, I feel, impacts adversely on youth development.

I looked at the recent Rangers FC v Celtic FC match and if the current Scottish National team manager Steve Clarke had been at that match of the 22 players who started on the pitch and only two of them were eligible to be selected for Scotland. That is a major change!

When I had the Scotland job I could pick a team from Celtic FC and Rangers FC and then I would add the superstars from England. Andy Robertson of Liverpool FC has a Champions League medal and we had a player in Paul Lambert who went to Borussia Dortmund from Celtic FC to win the European Cup. Rangers hadn’t one player in the initial eleven as Allan McGregor has retired from international football and all others were foreigners. Ryan Jack, who come on as a substitute, is eligible but he did not start the game. I looked at the Celtic FC and they had Stephen Welsh and Callum McGregor for the Scottish manager as Scott Brown, like Rangers’ McGregor, has indicated a desire to concentrate on club only. Admittedly, Greg Taylor and Leigh Griffiths came on as substitutes, but overall to me it’s a depressing situation for the National team to look at the two best teams in Scotland having such a dearth of eligible provision.

The tactics, now called ‘game plan’,have changed too and we now have VAR and new terminology like ‘front third’, ‘pressing’, etc..  The style of play has altered with building from the back very prevalent, and one up front quite fashionable.

The money at the top level is distorting the game. It used to be that players had to get a bonus to play their mortgage or buy a better car. I heard recently, rightly or wrongly, that at Sunderland AFC in the third tier of English football several players were earning in excess of £50.000  a week.

I don’t think the game has regressed tactically but the favoured 4-2-3-1 is simply a small adaptation of  4-4-2 with very little difference, only a slight tweaking of the players’ positions.  I firmly believe that the standards you set are the standards you get and the manager is extremely powerful as not only does he have the power of payment, he significantly and also importantly, has the power of selection.  He can only lose that power in two ways  – by being dishonest or by being incompetent.

I always insisted that my players were well dressed, immaculate when travelling, when they went out to play and in training. I had a thing about courtesy and would even tell my players when they get the ball from a ball boy to acknowledge it and express thanks. I learned this from a famous Scottish football man, Bobby Brown, who passed on recently aged 94. He managed the Scotland team that beat reigning World Champions in 1996 and when asked how he picked that team that beat England his response was first to get the goalkeeper, my own playing position.

He confessed that his choice of the hitherto uncapped Ronnie Simpson was influenced by the courtesy he displayed when he was his ball boy at Hampden when Bobby played for Queen’s Park. On receiving the ball to take a goal kick, Bobby politely thanked the youngster. Young Ronnie invariably replied, “Thank you for thanking me, Mr Brown.” The respectful young ball boy actually succeeded Bobby Brown in goal for Queen’s and the rest is history.

Whether or not all the innovations and expensive technical advancements are producing a better match day product is not for me to say. But I have my doubts.

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