When FIFA included a 23 year-old Scott Brown amongst their “ones to watch” in 2009, they praised him as a “dynamic box-to-box midfielder” while also acknowledging a “reckless streak” which may need to be quelled if he was to fulfil his obvious potential.
When the SPFA awarded him their Player’s Player of the Year trophy that same year, they sang his praises to the same tune: his colleagues admired his athleticism, battling style and unfailing engine, but criticised the volatile temper which had seen him rack up some 43 bookings. The man who had commanded the biggest transfer ever conducted between Scottish clubs remained divisive: undeniably talented but utterly unpredictable. Only time would tell whether he would learn to control his temper, or whether it would ultimately control him.
From thug midfielder to bona fide enforcer
When the SPFA crowned Brown once again this year, he accepted the award in-absentia from the beneath the Tenerife sun. Having just secured Celtic their seventh successive league title with a ruthless 5-0 dismantling of Rangers, he and his teammates were enjoying some well-deserved sunshine whilst they contemplated the historic “double-treble” they stood one victory away from. Last term, the general consensus was that Brendan Rodgers’ stewardship had turned the supposed twilight years of Brown’s career into his most effective yet, moulding him into a leaner, less capricious version of his former self. This season, he has earned rave review – even as many of the Celtic squad have struggled to replicate their form from the previous campaign, leading many to suggest that, at the age of 32, Brown is now playing the best football of his career.
That “aggressive streak” hasn’t gone anywhere: the nine yellow cards he has accrued this season make that much clear. But where he was once roamed wildly in search of an opponent to throw down with, now he picks his moment with exacting precision. Brendan Rodgers may be the gaffer, but Scott Brown is Celtic’s Don: sitting deep in midfield to allow the game to unfold before him, imposing himself on it only when necessary, always when required. A short pass here, an interception there, a few words of encouragement to a struggling teammate, a few sinister comments in the ear of the competitor. Across his ten years in hoops, he has graduated from thug midfielder to bona fide enforcer.
It is a distinction of small but vital degrees. Both are distinguished primarily by their use of force and their ability to dominate their opposition. A thug can be deployed usefully to intimidate and batter the opposition but they lack direction and judgement, as liable to lose their head and damage their own team as they are to effectively disrupt the other. They are mad dogs: fearsome to come up against but essentially wild once you let them off the leash. The hard-tackling, mud and bruises heritage of the British (and especially the Scottish) game creates a constant stream of these kind of players. They’re the ones you hear about mostly for the moments they see red. A thug can be a useful resource to call on but you can’t risk them in high-pressure situations and you can’t rely on them when the stakes are high.
Success has been second nature for Scott Brown
Scott Brown’s early years at Hibernian and Celtic held no shortage of outstanding performances. Rising to prominence as part of Hibs’ Golden Generation, he came through the youth academy alongside the likes of Gary O’Connor, Derek Riordan, Steven Fletcher, Steven Whittaker and midfield partner Kevin Thomson. Claiming a League Cup runners-up medal in 2004 before returning for the trophy itself in 2007. He would make his £4 million move to Celtic that year and would be captaining the side by 2010. From the moment he first came charging out onto the field, success has been second nature for Scott Brown.
But back in those earlier days, Brown’s hotheaded moments drew as much attention as his footballing achievements. It’s not just the number of reds and yellows which stand out, but the manner in which so many of them were acquired: reckless, unnecessary and angry challenges, mindless confrontations and moments of pure madness. In his younger years, and even as part of Ronny Deila’s much maligned side, Brown was maddening as often as he was inspiring. In key games, he often seemed borne inevitably towards bad decisions. Time and time again he would shepherd an opposition player out to the touchline, boxing him in and suffocating the attack, only to then wildly kick into the back of his legs, conceding a free kick and placing his side right back under the pressure he had so effectively relieved. His ability to get under the skin of other players was a potent weapon – and produced iconic moments like his Diouf-mocking “Brooney” goal celebration – but it too often saw him overstepping the mark and landing himself in the referees book, hobbling a player too incessantly aggressive to play effectively with a yellow to his name.
The death stare
During these years, Brown could best be compared to Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas. Just like Tommy Devitor, Brown’s face is permanently set in either an emotionless death-stare or a wicked Joker grin, flitting between the two with unsettling speed. Back then, he was already ruthlessly effective and fiercely loyal to those on his side, but also impulsive and unpredictable. Anyone who saw Scorsese’s famous flick knows how hard a fall those tragic flaws can lead to.
Characters like Tommy are never able to rise through the ranks because they lack the tact and judgement of a true enforcer. The latter knows when to throw their weight around but also when to stand off. They know when a few quiet words will land harder than a gut punch. They can’t be provoked by insults and they don’t become enraged by setbacks. They are always in control.
Since his arrival in 2016, Brendan Rodgers has transformed an impressive number of the squad he inherited. Stuart Armstrong made the leap to International-class midfielder, James Forrest added goals to his game and Kristoffer Ajer morphed from an aspiring midfielder to one the league’s most exciting centre-back prospects. But Brown has been his greatest success.
Tactically, his role has been only slightly tweaked. Having arrived at the club as a centre-mid who loved to bomb from box to box, he was used there or out on the right wing for the first part of his career but, as the legs began to slow a little, had been creeping backwards for the last few seasons. Under Rodgers, he plays as a defensive midfielder who sits so deep that he often splits the centre-backs. From here, he mostly looks to recycle possession with simple short passes and break up the other side’s play with a well-timed array of interceptions and interruptions. He seldom gets too close to the other team’s penalty area and is content to spend the game inside his own half if necessary, but his effects are felt all over the park. A glance at the few games which me missed offers clear proof of this: without him at its heart, the team cannot function.
What he’s doing with his feet mostly appears simple and, while it is never as easy as he makes it look, what he’s doing with his mind and his mouth are just as important. He has an understanding of everything going on everywhere on the park, and knows just how to influence it. When the defence looks shaky, Brown slips back into its centre to fortify them. When the opposition closes in, Brown makes himself available for the ball regardless of how much pressure it will put him under. When a teammate is struggling, Brown is by their side to restore their confidence and re-adjust their gameplan. When one of his own is getting drawn into a confrontation, Brown is now the one who draws them away.
Hailed by some, loathed by others, feared by more than a few
And of course, he is always talking to the opposition too. At every set-piece, at every break in the game, the camera catches glimpses of Brown letting a stream of quiet words slip beneath his villainous grin. He doesn’t need to get in anybody’s face anymore, he never needs to yell. The quietest man in the room is the weakest man in the room, so Brown makes himself heard more subtly now. Ahead of the Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers last month, the Ibrox side boasted of how they had cheered at being drawn against their dominant rivals, swearing loudly that this game would be different. Brown calmly suggested that they ought to be careful what they wished for. A few days later, he claimed the Hampden Park’s midfield as his territory, effortlessly banished the blue shirts that tried to intrude upon his turf, and led his side to a swaggering four nil victory.
“Everyone should get a little bit more protection from Scott Brown,” Hearts manager Craig Levein complained after his team suffered a 3 – 1 defeat to the Glasgow team. Brown’s name and reputation are known across the country, hailed by some, loathed by others, feared by more than a few. He remains a controversial figure, beloved by his own fans and reviled by many outside of Paradise, drawing power from both of these facts in equal measure. Even referees now seem to treat him with the same sort of respect that he police afforda to true OGs. He knows the game better than anyone else and has led his side through change and turbulence to become the singular dominant force in Scottish football. Though it has become more refined in recent years, the Scottish game still has no shortage of hard-hitting henchman. But the Godfather of them all is Scott Brown.