Scott Brown: Remembering his emergence at Hibs and why a special bond remains
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The ex-Aberdeen captain confirmed his exit from the club on Tuesday evening after finding the player/coaching role he agreed to last summer when joining Stephen Glass’ revolution in the Granite City will be curtailed under new boss Jim Goodwin. Though he didn’t mention retirement in his statement, the Pittodrie side did say he was leaving to concentrate on coaching opportunities.
When the national press write their career obituaries, Hibs won’t get a top-line mention – which is fair. After all, it’s been nearly 15 years since he left Easter Road and he spent the majority of them becoming a trophy-hoover at Celtic and making himself an undeniable legend at one of the Scotland’s two biggest clubs. Twenty-two major honours and two player-of-the-year awards will do that.
There does still exists a reverence, though, between Brown and the fanbase of the club who helped hone his skills as a raw-yet-enthusiastic youngster. His propensity for winding up Hearts and Rangers fans may have something to do with it, but the everlasting connection runs deeper still. He was a key part of the beloved Tony Mowbray team of the mid-noughties but didn’t burn bridges like Kevin Thomson or earn the ‘wasted potential’ tag like Derek Riordan or Garry O’Connor. Also, there’s a version of Scott Brown which really only truly belonged to Hibs.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Brown started off life as a forward coming through the ranks at Easter Road. In fact, in his first reserve game he was stationed at right-back. He took to the unfamiliar role with the kind of energy and gusto which would become a staple of his time in Leith; charging up the park and wowing the couple of hundred supporters in attendance through sheer determination alone.
It was the exact same once he made his ascension to the first team. The green-and-white faithful were in love with him instantly. He was a ferocious force of nature.
Mowbray quickly twigged the player was better off operating further back rather than leading the line. Instead of having his back to goal, he could take the ball with space to run in front of him and get it from A to B very quickly. One such highlight saw Brown, in control of the football, sprinting away from Rangers speedster Peter Lovenkrands before setting up Ivan Sproule to score in the Northern Irishman’s famous hat-trick performance at Ibrox in 2005.
He was an exciting player. He both charged around the park and played a major role in attack. In 2006-07 he would contribute eight goals from midfield, while also helping Hibs to win the League Cup, thus earning himself a move to Celtic Park after Gordon Strachan swooped for him. The £4.4 million paid by the Glasgow side remains a record fee for a player moving between Scottish clubs and the highest fee Hibs have received.
We all know what happened at Celtic. He remained for almost the rest of his career, skippered them to nine-in-a-row and a quadruple-treble, made over 600 appearances, played in the Champions League, and developed the typical Old Firm aversion to playing in friendlies for Scotland. But he wasn’t the Hibs version of Scott Brown.
The sight of him charging through the midfield, beating opponents not with a trick but through willpower, became rarer and rarer. His role instead became of someone who would look to dictate the play in front of the back four, use his energy to focus on second balls and disrupting play, and then, if there was anything left after that, get forward to support.
Injuries played a part, robbing Brown of some of the explosiveness his attacking game relied on, but there was often a feeling among his former supporters watching from afar that he’d been neutered by Strachan. He was moulded into a different player.
Considering what he went to achieve in the game this could easily be argued as a good thing – and justifiably so. This writer once spoke to two former team-mates of Brown from his days at Hibs and ex-Scotland international Neil McCann for an article in Nutmeg Magazine. All of them were of the opinion that Brown had squeezed every drop out talent he had into creating the successful career he enjoyed.
Being a dominant force further up the park is easier at Hibs than it is at Celtic. Us non-Old Firm supporters feel queasy admitting it, but it’s true. Besides, let’s not forget, the Parkhead support were exactly enamoured with Brown when he first turned up. He even fell out of the side to make way for the more cohesive partnership of an ageing Paul Hartley and Barry Robson down the stretch of the title-winning 2007/08 campaign.
The changing of Brown made him a better player for Celtic and there’s no doubting his excellence. His time under Brendan Rodgers, into his 30s, might have been the peak of his career. In a club full of dominating talents – Moussa Dembele, Odsonne Edouard, Kieran Tierney, Stuart Armstrong, Scott Sinclair – he remained their most important player. He developed a sixth sense for pressing coming behind him, while robbed the opposition of possession on just about every attack.
But he didn’t wow anybody. He didn’t make fans lean forward in anticipation when he picked up the football. He did that at Hibs.