Scott Brown sits on Fleetwood Town’s impressive £10m training ground Poolfoot Farm north of Blackpool and the first thing you notice is his bushy hair. He looks as thin as ever, but his features are softer.
There’s even a hint of a buzz cut and it’s certainly a far cry from the clean-shaven head Brown sported during his warrior playing days, primarily as Celtic’s extremely successful, iconic captain.
“It was more about scaring people than anything else,” Brown says. “I shaved my head before every game and it was to look a bit sharper, to look more aggressive, to show that I was serious.
“I would always try to pick a bigger guy; never a small guy. I wanted to punch above my weight. I wanted to play in the Champions League. I wanted to play against Barcelona, Bayern Munich. And I loved it. I loved playing against the best players in the world and I did that quite often and I got better at it.”
So it was acting?
“Yeah, you could be whoever you wanted for 90 minutes,” Brown explains. “As soon as I crossed the border, I became a different person. I was pretty chilled and relaxed off the field. I was a pantomime villain on it. I could become a little hole in the park.”
There are clear echoes of Roy Keane in this – another hugely combative and fiercely successful midfielder who spoke of how his stubborn streak was basically just that: an act; the mask he wore; the role he played.
“I talked to Roy. We worked together at ITV and Roy is a wonderful man. You’d never expect that from the way Roy played,” Brown says, laughing.
“You can be whatever you want on the football field, but you have to make sure you’re a winner. You can be the most hated guy in the world; or the most beautiful guy in the world. Look at Jamie Redknapp – the nicest man in football. And then you look at Roy Keane – he was probably a terrible man when he was playing. I never played against him, but I can imagine he was terrible. Then you go and meet them both, and Jamie is a lovely man, as is Roy, so there’s no right or wrong way.”
But it is clear that Brown believed that his manner gave him an advantage.
“If I felt we were struggling in games, I would try to set the tone by throwing the ball in. I would break someone down or try to play a good pass or win with a header: ‘okay, come on guys, let’s go!'” he says.
“I’m just trying to be as positive as possible. I love body language and I don’t want anyone to slouch, look like they don’t want to be here. If you don’t want to be here, then screw you. Wherever I was, I wanted to be – Hibs, Celtic, Aberdeen, Scotland – because it was my decision. If I didn’t want to be at Celtic, I would have left. And I love being here.”
Here is Fleetwood, the Premier League club where Brown is head coach after being appointed last summer and where he is already attracting attention. It is his first managerial job and he takes them into the fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time in their history against Vincent Kompany’s Championship leaders Burnley on Wednesday.
“It was brave of the club,” says Brown of owner Andy Pilley’s decision to appoint him last summer. But it was also brave of Brown. League One is a fiercely competitive pit where he could have been spat out, but he has quickly transformed Fleetwood’s style of play and with 13 games to go he is in 11th place.th place, having already surpassed last season’s point total and are on a five-game winning streak in six games with “stats” published daily on how players are performing. They have no excuse for not offending them. Hard work is a given and Brown delivers that message.
“We punch above our weight and will continue to punch above our weight and that’s the best thing about Fleetwood. We are a small club, we are well managed and we have nothing to hide. Come and see our training. We didn’t care,” says Brown, and the fit is clear.
A year ago this week, the 37-year-old, Celtic’s second most successful captain behind the legendary Billy McNeill, with a remarkable 10 Scottish titles, six Scottish Cups and six Scottish League Cups, hung up.
“Yeah, Hearts away … that was s—-,” Brown says, laughing again. “Became 1-0 (playing for Aberdeen). It’s devastating to say that my last football game was at Tynecastle and it was a 1-0 defeat!
“Could I have continued? I probably could have. But there comes a point in your career when you have to see the bigger picture. I didn’t want to embarrass myself – get beaten by younger players who are faster and get more yellow cards than I used to, and people start saying ‘who’s that old man’.”
Brown, along with assistant Steven Whittaker, was on his way to accept the Scotland manager’s job when Fleetwood called.
“It was the best decision,” he says. “To stay in Scotland, I will always be branded, whether I am at Celtic or not, I will always be branded with Celtic’s brush. Half of them will love you and half will hate you and that’s natural in Glasgow. Don’t get me wrong, I love Celtic to bits, but I had to leave Scotland and the best opportunity was to come here.”
That’s an honest confession. Despite 14 years at Celtic, Brown has never lived in Glasgow. His family home was – and remains – in Edinburgh. It was his release; his escape even though he cherished every moment at Celtic.
“I enjoyed being the captain – taking responsibility for other people, making sure they were on time, making sure the training was on point, that no one took the p—. Try to set standards that hopefully everyone else has followed,” says Brown.
“I’m setting the standards in a different way now – making sure guys are hitting a certain amount of high intensity, that many touches in the game, to win the battle.”
Timekeeping has always been an obsession. “Never be late,” says Brown. “You have 22 hours to get back here after training is over so there is no excuse. Guys from Manchester, Liverpool come and they are never late. I can never understand the delay. Make sure you set the standards for yourself and that applies to everyone else.”
That flow started early in Brown’s career. Even when he started playing at Hibs under Tony Mowbray, he was taking notes – “that’s when it started. But my dog ate them. Seriously,” he says – and this was reinforced at Celtic under Gordon Strachan and, in particular, Brendan Rodgers who also urged him to extend his playing career.
Interestingly, given the stellar opponents he faced, Brown was never in favor of switching jerseys.
“No, I never tried,” he says. “I always thought ‘what would people think if they saw me swapping shirts with someone and they got the better of me?’ If they asked me, it was fine, but I never ran and asked them.
I would never run up to Messi and say ‘can I have your shirt’. That’s embarrassing. I saw that. I was walking up the stairs and we’re losing 4-0 (at Celtic) to Barcelona and our guys don’t care about the result, they want to switch shirts with Messi, Busquets, Xavi and I’m thinking ‘that’s my worst f—– nightmare’ . I could never figure out, ‘You’re embarrassing us out there, but you want their shirt?’ That’s not for me.”
Brown may have decided he needed to leave Scotland and go to England to start his managerial career, but that didn’t happen for him as a player. Not that there weren’t opportunities.
“I spoke to Middlesbrough when Gareth Southgate was there,” he says. “There was an opportunity when Harry (Redknapp) was at Tottenham, but it didn’t happen at any club. But I was close to leaving. My contract at Celtic expired. Newcastle wanted me – then it would be me and Joey Barton in the middle of the park, it would be a great partnership! But Lennie (Neil Lennon) wanted to keep me as captain (at Celtic) and stay and it was the best decision I made in my life.”
Brown let his hair grow out again, for the first time since he was 19, during the quarantine.
“I’m getting older, more mature,” he says. “But it also had nothing to do with me not shaving my head to become a manager. They were my children! They just wanted to see me with hair and they said I looked younger, less aggressive and more approachable. But I was always approachable, even away from football. I am a ‘people person’ and I like to talk.
“It’s nice to be kind. If people think I’m not, then I get that. They might think I’m scary, but that’s who I am as a player, which is fine. I try to be a good guy and speak well in every club I go to and agree to. Whether it’s what you do on the youth and community side – and I did that at Celtic for 14 years. Every time the press (media) came out and we got beat up, it was like ‘go Scott’. If we won, there were 10, 12 other people who wanted to do it! Sometimes you have to do what’s best for the club.”
But Brown has made a break and says, emphatically, that he does not want to be judged by what he has achieved in Scotland. “I don’t know,” he says. “That’s why I came to England. Not many people knew me and I was under the radar. I’m chilled and I’m pretty relaxed, but if I went to a club in Scotland they’d still consider me a Celtic player. Whatever happened, it would read ‘former Celtic captain doing this…’ Win, lose. We come here more about Fleetwood, our boys, how they play. My time is up. My time is up. I’m not someone who talks about the past. In the future, I’m a manager.”