Billy Brown believes John Hughes couldn’t have a tougher match for his first in charge of Raith Rovers – but he insisted the former Hibs boss probably couldn’t have a better one.
By one of those strange quirks of fate that football so often throws up, Yogi will face the Championship leaders at Stark’s Park only days after succeeding Gary Locke, handed a short-term contract with the remit of ensuring the Kirkcaldy club haul themselves clear of the danger zone at the foot of the table.
Ending a run of 14 matches without a win stretching back to the end of October will be Hughes’ first task, a difficult one against a Hibs side intent on opening up a nine-point lead in their bid to win the title and promotion.
But, insisted Brown, Hughes will relish the challenge, having first come across the “fearsome character” almost 20 years ago when he and Jim Jefferies, one of football’s longest lasting management teams, took over at Berwick Rangers.
From Newtongrange Star via Berwick, Swansea, Falkirk, Celtic and Hibs and then into management himself with the Bairns, then Easter Road, Livingston, Hartlepool and Inverness Caley – where he won the Scottish Cup – Yogi has, declared Brown, enjoyed a “tremendous career”.
However, it all began at Shielfield Park with the wee Rangers propping up the entire Scottish League.
Brown recalled: “We were bottom of all the divisions.
“Berwick were actually playing quite well but just couldn’t win games so we decided we’d try to get the ball forward only we didn’t have anyone to play up front.
“Jim said ‘I’ve got the very man’ and so we put Yogi up there. I think in his first three or four games, the central defenders who were up against him went off with facial injuries.
“Believe it or not, we went 21 or 22 games undefeated and still finished second bottom which shows how far down we were. Yogi was brilliant for us and earned Berwick £70,000 when he moved to Swansea.”
The trio were reunited when Jefferies and Brown moved to Falkirk and, again, Hughes was initially played out of position in midfield before taking the step back into defence.
Brown said: “Yogi was brilliant at Falkirk. With him in your team you always had a chance. We had David Weir, Yogi and Stevie Fulton, three of the best players I have ever worked with. You would never say Yogi was an artist as a football player but he was the first pick in any team we had.”
Brown revealed he and Jefferies considered taking Hughes with them when they took charge of Hearts, only for Celtic boss Tommy Burns to beat them to his signature.
“Would he have come to Tynecastle?” mused Brown. “I don’t know because we never got round to it. But in professional football a lot of things happen and there’s been plenty, myself included, who have moved between Hearts and Hibs.”
Born-and-bred Leither Hughes finally came “home”, signed for Hibs by Jocky Scott and enjoyed four years at Easter Road before moving on to Ayr United and back to Falkirk where he began his own management career, initially in tandem with Owen Coyle. The surprise was that this “whole-hearted” defender espoused a game based on “pass, pass, pass”, an ethos he adheres to this day.
Brown said: “The strange thing was Yogi teamed up with Brian Rice, who was an artist but he favoured more direct football.
“The two of them were the opposite in management to what they were as players.”
Hughes took the Bairns to the 2009 Scottish Cup final, viewed by many to have played Rangers off the pitch at Hampden only to lose to a Nacho Novo goal.
It was enough to convince Hibs he was the man to succeed Mixu Paatelainen, a decision which appeared vindicated when he led the Capital club into Europe following a nail-biting finale to his first season.
There was, however, to be no second season, Hughes axed in the October, Brown admitting he took that knock badly.
He said: “For a Leith boy, it was his dream job. Putting that sort of thing behind you is very difficult at times but you have to do it. Time is a great healer, and Yogi moved on and became a Scottish Cup winner with Caley.”
Brown, who spent his own spell at Easter Road as assistant to both Colin Calderwood and Pat Fenlon, admitted management had probably changed Hughes, adding: “Believe it or not, I think is a bit calmer now but more intense as you have to be as a manager when you have things on your mind all the time.
“As the years go on and what he has been through – he’s had his ups and downs – I think you approach things with a different outlook. He’s a bit more relaxed, or as relaxed as you can be in this job but, while he has maybe changed a wee bit, he is still the big lad we all loved at Berwick.
“Yes, he’s a big, fearsome character who can look after himself – if there was to be another war you’d want to be in his trench because you’d have a chance – but he’s a tremendous character, someone with a heart of gold.”
Brown has also had an insight into the immediate challenge facing Hughes at Raith having done some scouting work for his predecessor, believing Locke was a touch unlucky to lose his job.
He said: “As a manager, you don’t just have to be good, you also need to be lucky and I dont think Gary has had many breaks as one.
“Raith should never have lost his last game against Morton and they could have knocked Hearts out of the cup with their performance in the second half of the first game. Things go against you and, as we all know, football is a results-driven business although I do feel Gary was unfortunate.
“As far as Yogi is concerned, I don’t think he could be starting with a harder game, but I don’t know if he could have had a better one.
“Raith’s record against Hibs has been fairly good. I know Hibs are on a good run but, if anyone can get Raith to raise their game, it’s Yogi.”