Although he will be looking to halt their momentum this weekend, Mark Brown is pleased to be encountering a Hibs team which appears to have a lot more stability than the one he was part of for two and a half predominantly turbulent years.
The 34-year-old goalkeeper returns to Easter Road with Dumbarton on Saturday after dropping into the part-time ranks in the summer following three years at Ross County. Prior to his time in Dingwall, Brown was on Hibs’ books at a time when it seemed as if managerial changes were more regular than home wins. He arrived midway through the 2009/10 season when John Hughes was leading the team towards their last Europa League foray, but, due to injury, didn’t make his debut until the following campaign. Then he played through Colin Calderwood’s “strange” era of goalkeeping rotation before concluding his stint at the club as Hibs’ third-longest-serving player in Pat Fenlon’s starting XI for the 2012 Scottish Cup final annihilation from Hearts.
Despite the stop-start nature of his time in Edinburgh, and the high turnover of managers and team-mates he witnessed, Brown bears no ill will to Hibs and is happy to see them on a firmer footing, albeit now in the Championship, than they were when he was there. “I enjoyed my time at Hibs,” he told the Evening News. “But it was a stop-start time for me because there were so many managers there and so many other goalkeepers. I didn’t really feel I had a proper chance to show what I could do. I’d done really well on loan at Kilmarnock [from Celtic] and I was hoping to kick on at Hibs. But as soon as I arrived there, I fractured my wrist and that was me out for the season. There was a lot of upheaval because of all the managerial changes. I signed for John Hughes, then Colin Calderwood and Pat Fenlon came in. When I signed, there was [Yves] Makalambay, Graham Stack and Graeme Smith, so there was good competition at the club. We qualified for Europe in the first season I was there but after Yogi left, it seemed to get worse and worse.”
Brown played most of his games for Hibs under Calderwood but was denied the chance to establish himself as No.1 by the manager’s decision to rotate his goalkeepers. Brown, Smith, Stack and Czech Jakub Divis effectively shared the gloves during the second half of the 2010/11 campaign. “Rotating the goalkeepers didn’t help me,” said Brown. “I’d played the first 20-odd games of the [2010/11] season and did well. I didn’t feel I’d done anything wrong but because the team was struggling he decided to change the goalkeeper. That’s the manager’s prerogative but it was strange. He gave Graeme Smith three games, then he’d give Graham Stack games, so it meant that even if you played well, you were still out of the team for the next few games. You just had to get on with it.”
Things didn’t get much better for Brown under Fenlon, pictured right. Stack became the Irishman’s favoured keeper and it was only when the Englishman got injured in the Scottish Cup semi-final that Brown got a regular run of games towards the end of the 2011/12 season. This culminated in keeping goal for the worst result in the club’s history. Although not obviously at fault for any of Hearts’ five goals at Hampden, it rankles with him that his two-and-a-half-year spell at the club ended in such harrowing fashion.
“The cup final was really disappointing because we wanted to end the Scottish Cup jinx,” he said. “Hearts were miles better than us on the day. It had been that way in most of the games between us over the course of the season as well, so it probably wasn’t a major surprise the way it went.
“I’d worked really well with Scott Thomson in the build-up and the preparation of the goalkeepers was ideal. Then it came to the game and there was nothing I could really do about any of the goals. But at the end of the day I was the goalkeeper when we lost 5-1 in a cup final to our biggest rivals, so it’s not really any consolation to say none of the goals were my fault. You just have to take it on the chin.
“I’ve got my own theories about what went wrong on the day but I wouldn’t really want to go into it. Maybe the way we approached the game and the set-up could have been better. Pa Kujabi got sent off early in the second half but even going back to the first half, you could see that coming. He’d had a bit of a runaround and was on a booking, so you think maybe he could have been taken off instead of Jorge Claros, who got taken off after about 40 minutes. When Kujabi got sent off and Hearts got the penalty, the game was pretty much over and it was a case of damage limitation. After that game, I think the club decided it was time for a fresh start and they got rid of a number of players, myself included.”
Brown has been back to Easter Road before with County, but this Saturday’s match represents his first there in Dumbarton colours. He has already helped the Sons put his old club to the sword at the Dumbarton Stadium on the opening day of the season, but believes the Edinburgh club are now in a far better place than they were two months ago and feels they are generally in good fettle under Stubbs, who is just weeks away from outlasting five of his six immediate predecessors in the Hibs hotseat.
“Hibs have generally lacked consistency in terms of managers and players over the years, but hopefully now that Alan Stubbs is in charge he can bring that,” said Brown. “We beat them on the opening day but there was a bit of upheaval with them at the time because Scott Allan played even though he was being heavily linked with Rangers. I don’t think that helped them. You never know how a club is behind the scenes but I think we definitely got them at a good time.
“They’ll be a stronger team this weekend than they were back then. They’ve made some good additions and their results have been reasonably consistent. It’s going to be hard for us but we proved on the first day of the season that we can match them. We’ve also improved since the first day of the season because we’ve had to integrate a lot of new players but now we’ve had time to gel.”
Brown, a seasoned Scottish top-flight goalkeeper who started out at Rangers and also played for the likes of hometown team Motherwell, Inverness and Celtic, has no regrets over his decision to give up full-time football. “When I was at Ross County, my wife and daughter had stayed in Motherwell and the travelling was getting too much,” he explained. “I was going home after the game on a Saturday, back up Sunday night, back down Tuesday, back up Wednesday and then home again at the weekend for pretty much three years so I’d decided that last year would be my last up there. I wanted to be based back down here full-time, so when the chance to go to Dumbarton came up, I jumped at it.
“I had a couple of player-coach offers to stay full-time but Dumbarton made me a good financial offer and I thought it was as good a time as any to go part-time and look to do something else outside of football. I work for a company that sells insurance to people who are involved in sport. It’s been good. In terms of my goalkeeping, I’ve not noticed a great deal of difference since going part-time. You probably do a bit more tactical stuff when you’re full-time, but the training’s not that different. I still have two night’s hard training with the boys and I do a bit of exercise myself on a Monday so I’m probably not missing a lot compared to being full-time.”