Scott Brown sits down at Fleetwood Town’s impressive £10 million Poolfoot Farm training ground north of Blackpool and the first thing you notice is his luxuriant hair. He looks as lean as ever, but his features are softer.
There is even the hint of a quiff and it is naturally a far cry from the severely shaved head Brown sported during his warrior-like playing days, primarily as Celtic’s hugely successful, iconic captain.
“It was more to intimidate people than anything,” Brown says. “I shaved my head before every game and it was to look a bit harder, to look more aggressive, to show that I meant business.
“I would always try and pick on the bigger guy; never the little guy. I wanted to punch above my weight. I wanted to play 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 it quite a lot and I thrived off it.”
So it was a bit of an act, then?
“Yeah, you could be anyone you wanted for 90 minutes,” Brown explains. “As soon as I crossed the line I became a different person. I was quite chilled and relaxed away from the pitch. On it, I was a pantomime villain. I could become a bit of an a—hole on the park.”
In this there are clear echoes of Roy Keane – another supremely combative and fiercely successful midfielder who has talked about how his hard-man schtick was basically that: an act; a mask he wore; a role he played.
“I spoke to Roy. We did ITV together and Roy’s a lovely man. You’d never expect that the way Roy played,” Brown says, laughing.
“You can be whoever you want to be on a football pitch, but you need to make sure you are a winner. You can be the most hated guy in the world; or the nicest guy in the world. Look at Jamie Redknapp – the nicest man in football. And then you look at Roy Keane – probably a horrible man when he played. I never played against him, but I can imagine he was horrible. Then you go and meet both and Jamie is a lovely man and so is Roy so there is no right way or wrong way.”
But, clearly, Brown believed his way gave him an edge.
“If I felt we were struggling in games I would try and set the tone with a tackle. I would smash someone or try and play a good pass or win a header: ‘right, come on lads, let’s go!'” he says.
“It’s just trying to be as positive as you can. I am big on body language and I don’t want anyone slumped over, looking like they don’t want to be here. If you don’t want to be here then f— off. Wherever I have been I wanted to be – Hibs, Celtic, Aberdeen, Scotland – because that 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 League One 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 on Wednesday he leads them into the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, for the first time in their history, against Vincent Kompany’s high-flying Championship leaders, Burnley.
“It was brave of the club,” Brown says of the decision by owner Andy Pilley to appoint him last summer. But it was brave of Brown too. League One is a ferociously competitive bear pit where he could have been spat out, yet he has quickly transformed Fleetwood’s style of play and with 13 games to go is in 11th place, having already beaten last season’s points total and is on a run of five wins in six games with “the stats” published daily on how the players are performing. They have no excuse about being pnot icked. Hard work is a given and Brown delivers that message.
“We punch above our weight and will keep punching above our weight and that’s the best thing about Fleetwood. We are a small club, we are well-run and we’ve got nothing to hide. Come and watch our training. We could not care,” Brown says and the fit is clear.
It is a year ago this week that the 37-year-old, Celtic’s second most successful ever captain, just behind the legendary Billy McNeill, with an extraordinary 10 Scottish titles, six Scottish Cups and six Scottish League Cups, hung up his boots.
“Yeah, Hearts away… that was s—-,” Brown says, laughing again. Got beat 1-0 (playing for Aberdeen). It’s devastating to say that my last game in football was at Tynecastle and it was a 1-0 defeat!
“Could I have carried him?” 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 start embarrassing myself – getting beat by younger players who are quicker and taking more yellow cards than I have taken before and people start to say ‘who’s that old guy’.”
Brown, along with assistant Steven Whittaker, was on his way to accept a managerial job in Scotland when Fleetwood called.
“It was the best decision,” he says. “For me to stay in Scotland I am always going to get branded, whether I am at Celtic or not at Celtic, I am always going to be branded with the Celtic brush. Half of them will love you and half of them will hate you and that’s natural in Glasgow. Don’t take me wrong, I love Celtic to bits, but I needed to get out of Scotland and the best opportunity was for me to come here.”
It is a candid admission. Despite his 14 years at Celtic, Brown never lived in Glasgow. His family home was – and remains – in Edinburgh. It was his release; his escape although he cherished every moment at Celtic.
“I enjoyed it as a captain – taking responsibility for other people, making sure they are on time, making sure the training sessions were spot-on, no-one is taking the p—. Try to set standards that hopefully everyone else followed,” Brown says.
“Now I set standards in a different way – making sure the lads hit a certain amount of high intensity, so many touches in a game, that they win the battle.”
Timekeeping has always been an obsession. “Never be late,” Brown says. “You have 22 hours to get back here after training has finished, so there is no excuse. There are lads coming from Manchester, Liverpool and they are never late. I can never understand being late. Make sure you set standards for yourself and that flows to everyone else.”
That flow started early in Brown’s career. Even when he started playing at Hibs under Tony Mowbray he took notes – “it started then. But my dog ate them. Seriously,” he says – and that intensified at Celtic under Gordon Strachan and, in particular, Brendan Rodgers who also urged him to prolong his playing career.
Interestingly, given the stellar opponents he faced, Brown was never one for swapping shirts.
“No, I never really bothered,” he says. “I always thought ‘what would people think if I was seen swapping shirts with someone and they had got the better of me?’ If they asked me it was ok but I never ran and asked them.
“I would never run to Messi and say ‘can I have your shirt please’. That’s embarrassing. I have seen it. I have been walking up the stairs and we are 4-0 down (at Celtic) to Barcelona and our lads are not worrying about the result but want to swap shirts with Messi, Busquets, Xavi and I am thinking ‘that’s my worst f- —– nightmare’. I could never get my head around it: ‘you are embarrassing us out there but you want their shirt?’ That’s not for me.”
Brown may have decided he had to leave Scotland for England to start his managerial career, but it did not happen for him as a player. Not that there were no opportunities.
“I spoke to Middlesbrough when Gareth Southgate was there,” he says. “There was an opportunity when Harry (Redknapp) was at Tottenham and it didn’t happen with either club. But I was close to going. My contract was running down at Celtic. Newcastle wanted me – it would have been me and Joey Barton in the middle of the park at the time, that would have been a great partnership! But Lennie (Neil Lennon) wanted to keep me as captain (at Celtic) and to stay on and it was the best decision I made in my life.”
Brown grew his hair back, for the first time since he was 19, during lockdown.
“It’s me getting older, more mature,” he says. “But also it was nothing to do with me not shaving my head to become a manager. It was my kids! They just wanted to see me with hair and they said I looked younger and less aggressive and more approachable. But I have always been approachable, even away from football. I am a ‘people person’ and I like to chat.
“It’s nice to be nice. If people think I am not then I get that. They might think I am intimidating, but that’s me as a player, which is fine. I try to be a nice guy and speak well at every club I go to and buy into it. Whether it’s what you do on the youth and community side – and I did that at Celtic for 14 years. Anytime there was press (media) and we got beat it was like ‘on you go, Scott’. If we won there were 10, 12 other people wanting to do it! Sometimes you have to do what’s best for the club.”
But Brown has made the break and argues, forcefully, that he does not want to be judged by what he achieved in Scotland. “I don’t,” he says. “That’s why I came down to England. Not a lot of people knew me and I came under the radar. I am chilled and quite laid back but if I had gone to a club in Scotland they would still judge me as being a Celtic player. No matter what happens it would be ‘former Celtic captain does this…’ Wins, loses. Coming down here it’s more about Fleetwood, our lads, how they play. My time has been. My time is gone. I am not someone who goes on about the past. Going forward I am a manager.”