HE’S been at Hearts, then to Hibs, and back again. Billy Brown harbours a rare insight into both clubs ahead of this Sunday’s Edinburgh derby. No-one knows the stakes better. Both teams need a win, the Hibs manager’s job could be on the line, and there will be around 13,000 Hearts fans baying for the opposition’s blood.
Brown will be right in the thick of it and, at 62, wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else. He chose to assist Gary Locke without pay after Hearts entered administration. He was Pat Fenlon’s right-hand man as recently as June 2012, and previous to that enjoyed two spells with Jim Jefferies at Tynecastle.
There is no indication of split loyalties. Brown wants Hearts to win on Sunday. Both clubs opened the new Scottish Premiership with 1-0 defeats last weekend, although it could be argued Hearts’ need for victory is greater given their 15-point deficit at the bottom of the league table.
Hibs fans are turning on Fenlon following the catastrophic 9-0 aggregate loss to Malmo in the Europa League qualifying rounds. That dissent would merely intensify if they lose in Gorgie following Sunday’s home loss against Motherwell.
Although he feels Fenlon is experienced enough to handle the situation, Brown admitted it will be different to anything the Irishman has encountered before. Locke will unquestionably rely on Brown’s knowledge of his Easter Road counterpart and of how he will plan for this match. It could work to Hearts’ advantage.
“He’s an experienced manager but I don’t know if he’s been through this kind of thing before,” Brown told the Evening News. “I don’t think anyone could say they enjoy being in the position he’s in at the moment. It’s very difficult. He’s signed a lot of players since he went to the club so it is his team. He’ll be realistic enough to realise the buck stops with him.
“I think he can do that. I’m not sure if he’s been under this pressure before at this size of a club, but he’s been a manager long enough to know how to handle pressure.
“Hibs are a big, strong team. Obviously things aren’t going so well for them. I don’t think there’s any doubt that when a team has a bad run, it does affect them. When you’re not winning it affects you. I can’t say we’re getting Hibs at a good time because it’s only the second game of the season. If they’d won the European tie and beaten Motherwell, their confidence would be sky-high. So, although they have a lot of experienced players, the start they’ve had to the campaign is not of benefit to them.
“Only Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson are playing regularly from when I was there. I know all the players Hibs have signed and I know how Pat thinks. I have a fair idea of how he might play. I know what they’ve got – they’re experienced and they’re big and strong. We’ve got to compete with that and also worry about our own game. We want to be better in the final third than we were against St Johnstone.”
Crossing the Edinburgh divide hasn’t fazed Brown in the slightest. His commitment to Hearts cannot be questioned given he is working for free and will continue to do so whilst the club is in administration.
He views the task ahead – trying to guide a team dominated by inexperienced youngsters to overhaul the 15-point deficit and preserve the club’s top-flight status – as a great challenge.
“I’ve got to say all that counts for me on Sunday is Hearts winning. I’m not bothered about anything else. Hibs are the opposition and we will just concentrate on how we play and how we get the young boys gelled into a workable unit. That might take a wee bit of time but you don’t really get time in this league. We need to hit the ground running.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a derby that people think is unimportant. This one is a wee bit different for a couple of reasons. Hearts have a new team with only three players over 21 outfield, and one of those is Danny Wilson who is 22. It’s a relatively new team and probably one of the youngest to have played in the top flight.
“On the other side of the coin, Hibs aren’t doing so well. The European night was a bitter blow to them when they crashed out. From that point of view, this is a big, big game from everybody’s point of view – players, managers and supporters.”
Some may be inclined to think Brown would be a target for abuse having jumped ship from Tynecastle to Easter Road and back again, via a stint in Methil as East Fife manager. However, he has no problem with either set of Capital supporters.
“People have always had something to say to me,” he said. “I’ve settled back in at Hearts really well. This is my third time there and I enjoy it. I like being there. It’s a big challenge. As far as the way people perceive me, I haven’t really had a lot of problems that way. I’ve done what I thought was right at the time and I’ve not had a lot of stick. Obviously you can’t please everybody and there are people who won’t be happy with me, but I can’t do anything about that.
“I’m delighted being back at Hearts. I’ve had a lot of great times here and I hope to have more great times with them. I’m there because I want to be and I’ll stay there as long as I’m needed.”
If there is one certainty about this derby encounter, it’s that it will be played out in front of a partizan group of Hearts fans. All home sections of Tynecastle are sold out as supporters show admirable loyalty to their financially-troubled club. More than 3500 travelled to Perth last weekend and Brown expects an extra special tingle to run down the spine as kick-off approaches on Sunday.
“The atmosphere will just be unbelievable,” he exclaimed. “The crowd Hearts took to St Johnstone was incredible, it was an amazing turnout. The way the fans got behind the team in the pre-season friendlies was outstanding as well. One thing we won’t be let down by on Sunday is backing from our supporters. I don’t know how many tickets Hibs have sold so far but we all know the size of the occasion.
“Tynecastle is the best ground in Scotland to stage a game like this. It’s the best arena you can play in and it will be red hot on Sunday. I’ve got to say I’m really, really looking forward to this, I’m delighted to be involved in it.”
There are plenty other less stressful things a 62-year-old could occupy himself with on a Sunday afternoon. Yet Billy Brown is like an adrenalin junkie. Even when he isn’t being paid, he lives for those 90 minutes inside a technical area. Especially when they end with the thrill of winning an Edinburgh derby.