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Craig Brown & the Medes and the Persians: Graham Spiers’ Euro 96 memories

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Two weeks before Euro 96 started I was ordered at gunpoint by a Scottish newspaper to go and fetch Craig Brown, do a one-hour sit-down interview with him, and also arrange for a scenic photo of the Scotland manager for a pretty huge piece in the paper.

I can’t remember why exactly, but Brown and I ended up at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, where, of all things, he was to be photographed beneath Salvador Dalí’s famous Christ of Saint John of the Cross.

“Why do you want me to pose for a picture underneath this?” Brown asked me.

“I don’t know,” I replied. Perhaps I thought that, at the imminent Euros, Brown was about to be crucified.

We repaired for some lunch where, not for a first time, Brown began to probe me about my church background, and the fact that – he thought this unusual for a sportswriter – I possessed a Divinity degree. “Right, so you’re just the man to understand this,” he said erroneously. “This Euro tournament coming up is going to be all about the Medes and the Persians. That’s how I see it from Scotland’s point of view.”

I was hurriedly racking my brains… the Medes and the Persians? This was some sort of blurry Greek history to me. “Oh aye, aye, the Medes and the Persians,” I said to Brown, scarcely knowing what I was talking about. When I got home that night I quickly looked it up and discovered the story of the Medo-Persian conflict from the Sixth Century BC, and how the Persians – the underdog? – had been led to victory by Cyrus the Great. All of this had been chronicled for posterity by Herodotus, a sort of Alex Cameron of his day, but with greater depth and range.


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(Alex “Candid” Cameron had famously taken tins of corned beef away with him on every Scottish football trip abroad because he was wary of foreign food.) I still couldn’t grasp it: what was Brown on about, the Medes and the Persians? Some weeks later, after Scotland had heroically beaten Switzerland 1-0 in Birmingham, I said to him: “So were we the Medes in that game?” It was a theme that continued between us for the rest of Brown’s life. Two years after Euro 96, as we gathered in Paris for the great feast of France 98, I said to Brown: “I’ve been reading up anew about the Medes and the Persians. And against Brazil next week we will definitely be the Medes.”

I’m reminded again writing this: the Scotland manager of those days was a man who had come through the old-fashioned Scottish education system. Brown had been taught Latin, was versed in the classics, knew his histories, and understood the rudiments of the English language. The Brown boys – Craig, the Scotland manager; Jock, a Cambridge blue, a lawyer and a TV commentator; and Bob, a highly respected Church of Scotland minister – had all been under the tutelage of a strict father who had sworn by the virtue of education. It was no wonder that all three boys achieved accomplishment in their lives.

But enough of this Herodotus side track. Let’s get to Euro 96 where the action was. For an emerging young sports hack like me this was all tremendously exciting. Even better, Brown had arranged a 10-day pre-tournament warm-up trip for Scotland to the USA, to which we all trooped off, the hacks bevvying and smoking up at the back of the plane, while the athletes – the Scotland players – were in the comfier, more forward seats, occasionally looking back at us in bemusement.

I remember that trip to the States as being one of unremitting meat, drink and football. Racked with guilt at the sheer self-indulgence of it, I accompanied the late, great Kevin McCarra to church one Sunday. Back then the media lived high on the hog and, being raised Baptist, I absolutely craved Divine forgiveness. I remember returning to Scotland with some sky-high expenses, to which no-one batted an eyelid. The paperwork for that duly processed, it was time for the next beano: heading down to England to see what Brown and Scotland could do in Group A of the Euro 96 finals against England, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

As well as facing up to these intimidating opponents, Brown had one other foe to overcome. His name was Gerry McNee.

Then the Sunday Mail’s most widely-read columnist – quite apart from Gerry’s hectoring put-downs on TV and radio phone-ins – this pundit had it in for Brown, viewing him as a weak Scotland manager and regularly giving him it through both barrels. There was no “Medes and Persians” banter between Craig and Gerry. On the contrary, it was hand grenades from 10 paces.

Gerry repeatedly thanked God in print for Alex Miller being Brown’s No.2 – “otherwise we’d all be doomed” – and had stalked Brown on both the USA warm-up trip and then at the tournament itself in England. It took Brown all of his self-discipline to ignore this pestering Thomas Becket in his midst.

The English media positively swooned and fluttered their eyelashes around Brown at this tournament – it really was very striking. They were in thrall to him. This was still the age – the mid-1990s – when British football was emerging from its period of post-war men – pretty hard characters – who had gone on to become managers in the 1970s and 1980s and were old-school, working-class, men who had often been in football since they were 16 years old and were not exactly poets or readers of Herodotus.

So some in the English press could scarcely believe Brown: here was a football manager who was polite, sophisticated, educated and witty. At one of his Euro 96 press conferences Brown used the word “perspicacity” while describing a scouting mission he had been on to spy on Terry Venables’ England.

“Perspicacity!” chortled The Sun’s English football correspondent. “ Did you ever?” Brown’s sheer warmth and charm melted the hearts of the ale-guzzling, gin-soaked English hack-pack. The London TV and radio crews fawned over him for interviews and Brown constitutionally didn’t know how to say “no”.

Up first for Scotland came Holland…yes, that’s right, “Holland”. This was still a few years before we learned to name that country properly, much as, in the 1960s, Britons had referred to “the Argentine” instead of Argentina and to “Hung-garia” instead of Hungary. We do catch up eventually. So Holland it was, and all I can remember from that teeming afternoon at Villa Park was a Scotland team in their all-blue, faintly-tartan strip getting off with a blatant penalty and forever chasing those beautiful orange shirts in which men like Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf darted around. The Dutch created four or five glaring chances but failed to take any of them in the 0-0 draw.

“I think the result was fair,” said Craig Brown, incapable of ever casting Scotland in a negative light.

(Image: Newsquest)

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There had been talk at the time of a racism row in the Dutch camp: a white v black dispute that, in time-honoured Dutch multiculturalism, had rarely been an issue but had somehow started to simmer that summer. We Scots looked on perplexed at these reports. What did it mean? What was it all about? Did it affect the Dutch performances? Would Edgar Davids really not pass the ball to Dennis Bergkamp? In the Scotland camp we were left scratching our heads.

Then to England at Wembley: the old Wembley, with its true Twin Towers, and toilets that stank even worse than at Hampden. That proved an afternoon of hard graft for Scotland, with the Gary McAllister missed penalty and then Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne goals that put the match beyond dispute. The redoubtable Tosh McKinlay played left wing-back for Scotland, while such names as Ince, Gazza, McManaman, Sheringham and Adams all adorned England. In truth, it was a mismatch, though Brown was having none of it. “I thought we competed well,” the Scotland manager affirmed.

I sat there on my own in a wee ante-room inside Wembley writing my match report for Scotland on Sunday, when suddenly, coming bursting through the door, arrived Ally McCoist and John “Bomber” Brown. They were both clad in striking light-blue tartan suits. I was startled to see them, as they were me. “Hello and goodbye!” shouted McCoist as the pair struggled to find their way out of Wembley. It looked to me like a night on the tiles beckoned.

One more game loomed for the Scots, against Switzerland back at Villa Park in Birmingham three days later. And how I savoured this one.

These finals were made special for me by the appearance of a magical Swiss player, Kübilay Turkyilmaz. A tough, rangy, goal-scoring No.9, Turkyilmaz, as his name suggests, had a bit of the Bosphorus running through him, though he was born and bred in Switzerland, where his Turkish immigrant parents had settled.

When the European football scene began to be more readily accessible to British fans via flourishing TV coverage, Turkyilmaz kept leaping out of the screen at me for his brazen attacking. He scored twice against a Rangers team consisting of Paul Gascoigne, Richard Gough, Brian Laudrup and Ally McCoist in a Champions League tie when Grasshopper of Zurich hammered the Scottish champions 3-0. Turkyilmaz had previously scored twice against Manchester United in a Champions League tie.

A friend said to me: “Who is this Turkyilmaz guy you’re always raving on about?” I replied: “Watch him at the Euros. You’ll see.”

So I went to Villa Park on June 18 cherishing the thought of Scotland taking on Switzerland, knowing that I would also be watching one of my favourite European players in action. It was Turkyilmaz who had shattered England 10 days earlier by equalising in their 1-1 draw in front of 76,000 at Wembley, and the same Turkyilmaz whom Craig Brown was now ordering Colin Hendry and Colin Calderwood to shackle at every conceivable moment. In the 10th minute at Villa Park, Andy Goram somehow clawed away a Turkyilmaz header to keep the score at 0-0. This great striker scored 34 goals in 64 internationals for Switzerland, but Scotland won that day through an Ally McCoist raker, a goal that had Brown leaping from his dugout and pumping the air in a celebration not seen since the Persians beat the Medes.

By this point, alas, I was on crutches, the result of a football-playing mishap involving myself and my friend and colleague, Jonathan Northcroft from Muchalls, who would go on to be – and remains – a distinguished football correspondent of the Sunday Times. In such circumstances, being crocked, it was no use back then trying to wedge in and out of some of British football’s Dickensian press boxes. Things are much better today for harassed, deadline-dreading hacks. Back in 1996 you couldn’t squeeze a cat into some of the media facilities.

So that was my Euro 96: a memorable month of football, starting out in the USA, then returning home to Glasgow, and then to Scotland’s three ominous fixtures in the tournament itself. I thought of it all again in recent times with the sad passing of Craig Brown at 83. Brown had been born in 1940 and come through a life of both joy and hardship, as was the way of that wartime generation. My life, in contrast, has been cossetted and even pampered. Yet Brown was civil and helpful and gloriously self-deprecating. He also had a modesty gene that few high-achieving men possess.

Brown wasn’t quite Cyrus the Great but Herodotus would have admired him.

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