Those who think I never give the Scottish media credit ought to be surprised that Alan Puttulo earns some much deserved praise this morning for a fascinating, and insightful, interview with our very first General Manager, Jock Brown.
His appointment was 20 years ago this week, and if that makes you feel old then you’re not alone.
Pattulo clearly spoke to him at some length, and it’s not surprising to find that Jock Brown comes across a whole lot better, with the benefit of hindsight, than he did in his time at Celtic Park. He knows he’ll never be the big hero.
No-one will ever invite him to unfurl a flag and we wouldn’t name a toilet stall after him far less a stand …
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if history might not eventually grant him a full, and honourable, rehabilitation if not a rave review.
We’re in a different era now. Celtic is a more confident club than it was back then, and we’re more tolerant and open-minded as fans than we’ve previously been. We appreciate that there are considerations beyond whether someone is “Celtic minded”.
You get the best people for the job, you pay them well, and you let them get on with it.
When Gerry McCulloch was made our head of digital media recently I wrote an article saying that any talk of it being some sort of homecoming was ridiculous considering what he presided over at Radio Clyde but that as a straightforward appointment it was first-rate work from the club because he’s a consummate, insightful, professional who knows his stuff.
I like to think I’d have been just as understanding about Jock Brown.
See, I don’t remember this guy as a commentator. I have no idea whether he was fair to us or not, but I know that I wouldn’t care what his background was now if he had been brought to Celtic to fill a certain role and he had the skill-set required to do it. Fergus sure as Hell didn’t, and whilst Jock Brown was never a “Rangers man” as some have alleged, I know for a fact that Fergus hired a guy to work in a high profile role at the club who was a season ticket holder at Ibrox, and who did a pretty damned good job whilst at Parkhead.
Above all else, Fergus was a believer in getting stuff done.
Jock Brown was brought in to fill a role. Fergus was only interested in his ability to carry that out. What’s pretty clear is that this couldn’t have mattered less to the hacks. Brown had been one of them, and he moved over to us. Whether it was pique born of jealousy or some belief that he’d jumped the fence (in every sense of the word) they never gave him a chance. They were set on poisoning the well from the very first day.
Just the other day, I wrote an article on why most of the Celtic bloggers were glad to see the back of Mike Ashley, and in that piece I said we had helped to create a perception of him that was toxic in the eyes of their fans. I didn’t suggest we made them hate the guy or that we got rid of him … I said we coloured the picture a little.
We made a contribution.
A lot of people assumed I was bragging and trying to claim credit. I wasn’t. The idea is insane. A lot of others assumed I was having a laugh at the Sevco fans expense, and I kind of was … but it wasn’t a joke. I meant every word of that piece.
I never alleged a conspiracy though, I said we gave it a nudge.
I used a comedic line “I love it when a plan comes together” to highlight the piece, and of course that was a little tongue in cheek. But it wasn’t just for giggles. We happily helped paint the picture of Ashley as a guy with only evil intent and on some level we all knew we were stirring the soup … but no-one got together and co-ordinated it.
Nobody had to.
It just kind of happened.
I do believe the Celtic sites had something to do with that and I know how much it grates on their fans to admit that we manipulated them even a little bit. As a couple of the others guys have said this weekend, the Celtic fans, by and large, ain’t exactly sad to see Ashley go.
Even if the possibility of his putting money in was low, it was still too high for our liking.
Why is that important?
Well, I have a degree in media studies and more years in political activity than I care to remember and this is not a tactic that I am unfamiliar with. It’s a technique the media is very practiced in; they have it down to a fine art. It’s been used on every Labour leader I’ve ever seen in my life, for openers and they aren’t shy about the way they do it.
Neil Kinnock got attacked as the “ginger whinger.” Ed Miliband got it for the way he ate a bacon roll. It’s worked to a great extent in damning public perceptions about Alex Salmond. It is in the latter stages of utterly destroying the career of Theresa May.
I saw the sports press try to destroy two of our managers, Wim Jansen and Jo Venglos, before they’d taken charge of a single match. Martin O’Neill eventually sued them over suggestions that he was talking to clubs whilst contracted to Celtic. Expect similar tactics, and hopefully a similar response, about Brendan as he takes us closer to ten in a row.
And of course, they tried it with Fergus – you only have to remember the headlines comparing him to Saddam Hussein.
Before the internet, before the Bampots, when all we had to punch back were the fanzines, those things worked, to one degree or another. They coloured our perceptions, in Fergus’ case so much so that he was shamefully booed as he unfurled the flag.
Jock Brown got the same treatment, and it started at his first press conference where every inquisitor opened with a question about his “Rangers background”, which everyone now accepts was absolutely non-existent. That didn’t matter, far less that everyone who attended, many of whom had worked with the guy for years, must have known that; it was the start of it, of wrecking this guy in the eyes of the fans before he even had his pencil box unpacked.
The tabloids were the lead-off hitters, as per usual, christening him “Joke Brown” the following day.
They paid no heed to his credentials or knowledge of the game.
They saw a chance to score a cheap and easy hit and they took it.
He never recovered.
It’s fair to say too that he fulfilled the role Fergus had obviously hired him for, although whether he fully grasped it at the time isn’t clear, which was that of lightening rod and taker of flak. A lot of the fall-outs he had with players and coaches – most famously, aside from Jansen and McLeod the bonus row that led to a spectacular bust-up with Paul Lambert – were clearly a result of instructions he’d been given by the guy in the bunnet … he was never going to win a popularity contest inside Celtic Park. And to be fair to him, he knew that himself.
But as the bad moments are all fresh in the memory – his weasel words on DiCanio are particularly grating to me – “He wasn’t sold, he was traded …”, an evasion right out of the Big Book of Dave King – his successes and accomplishments have long since been forgotten by most, if not all, Celtic fans.
He took the blame for everything that went wrong … but never the credit for what went right.
And there were a great many things which did.
As Pattulo says in the piece, his time at Celtic was bookended by the signings of Henrik Larsson and Lubo Moravcik.
In the latter case, he knew exactly what the media would make of the deal but he wholeheartedly trusted Jo Venglos (who he calls “the finest person I ever met in football”) and his judgement on the matter above all else.
He also jokes (in a dark way) about the AGM after we’d won the title, where he had announced sterling results; a League Cup, a League Championship, nine signings … and a £7 million profit. And what credit did he get? A guy asked him, “Why are you making a profit?”
When Peter Lawwell announces last year’s numbers – provided we get investment in this squad and qualify for the Champions League groups of course haha – he’ll get a standing ovation. And he’ll have wholeheartedly earned it too, and I write that as a guy who’s a self-confessed wearer of a “Not His Biggest Fan” badge.
Jock Brown is best known, of course, as the guy who “drove Wim Jansen out of Celtic”, a story that’s only halfway true.
Fergus himself describes Wim as almost impossible to work with on any kind of long-term project; he famously refused to submit a Season Two plan to the board, although they asked him for one on repeated occasions.
I’ve always wondered if perhaps there weren’t two sides to that debate, although only one ever got to the papers. (Or at least, only one was ever reported by them.) It helped drive another nail into Jock Brown’s Celtic Park coffin.
The great irony is that it was probably the signing of Lubo which was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The media response to that was every bit as venomous as Brown, and Venglos, had feared it would be whilst discussing the deal.
And of course, Lubo famously took his first Celtic bow on the day Brown’s resignation was accepted, and announced by the club.
The game, against Dundee, ended 6-1 to Celtic, and we saw enough from our 33 year old signing to suggest we might have something there.
A fortnight later, he took Rangers apart single-handedly and the legend was born.
That was the same day as the press announced that we’d agreed a deal to sign Mark Viduka. Brown would have deservedly got credit for that had he still been around, although when Viduka went AWOL after just four days he’d almost certainly have got the blame.
It summed up his time at Celtic; the guy just could not win.
Twenty years after he first took his bow at a Parkhead press conference notorious for the level of spite that he had to endure, he and Fergus are still good friends and see each other from time to time. For all that happened to him at our club, Jock Brown has never uttered a negative word against us. We didn’t have to fire that guy. There was no animosity in his departure. When things got to a certain point he walked, of his own volition.
There’s a certain honour in that. A certain integrity.
For Celtic fans, he will never be a hero.
But I’m not convinced he was ever a villain.
He was a victim of his own role, that of Fergus’ hatchet-man, the guy who did the cutting when there was cutting to be done. On top of that he was one of the principal targets of a vicious campaign by a bloody minded media, who were trying everything they could to derail our club in the Year That Stopped The Ten. Wim got the same treatment and, in their spite at losing, Jo Venglos after him. Brown was collateral damage, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For all that, he was, and remained, a consummate pro. History will judge him far less harshly than some of the assorted goons who’ve had similar seats at Ibrox and Hampden, and who destroyed the newspapers they worked on.
Jock Brown helped to build something.
They wrecked what was in their charge.
I know, now, who I would rather have at the helm.