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Robbie Keane's record will have Scots worried, says Craig Brown


Craig Brown in Dublin yesterday

Craig Brown in Dublin yesterday


Craig Brown in Dublin yesterday

It was Arrigo Sacchi who reminded us that a jockey could become successful without ever having to be a horse.

His point being that a professional soccer manager need not have scaled the heights as a player in order to succeed; the Italian shoe salesman comprehensively proved the principle by winning successive European Cups with the great 1990s Milan team.

Craig Brown's playing career was less than distinguished; despite being at Rangers, in his own words he once found himself as a third-choice striker behind an amputee and a Catholic.

However, he is arguably Scotland's most successful coach, leading the country during their last sustained period of excellence which featured two tournament appearances at Euro '96 and the 1998 World Cup in France.

Both times, as is Scottish tradition, they exited at the pool stages. This Saturday, they meet Ireland to effectively secure a play-off berth for next year's Euro 2016.

Brown was an assistant to Andy Roxburgh back in September 1987 when Ireland drew their last competitive meeting with the Scots in Dublin.

Mark Lawrenson would smuggle a winner in Hampden six months later. "I blame the manager," Brown, now 74, deadpans.

Scottish striker Gary Mackay would famously intercept in Sofia to change the course of Irish soccer history. "Jack sent the champagne," Brown recalls of those heady days when true giants of the game dominated each country's roster.

"Distance lends enchantment to the memory but I think there were better players then," he notes. "Different times. The landscape has changed."

It could be argued now that the best players in the Aviva next weekend will be pacing agitatedly up and down their respective technical areas.

"If these two were playing," says Brown, "with Martin O'Neill in one team, and Gordon Strachan the other, both teams would be better.

"I wouldn't say Ireland have the better players, that would be disrespectful to Scotland.

"You can go through each position and mark them off against each other and you could make an argument for every player. But I don't want to be a smart arse here and pick either man's team."

Much of the conjecture on this side of the water alights upon the enduring enigmatic question of what to do with Robbie Keane.

Brown doesn't want to heap pressure on the manager but his visible surprise when informed just how many international goals the Tallaght man has snaffled - 65 - tells its own story.

"You would be very tempted to pick Robbie Keane," he concedes, after being informed at length to arrive at the same conclusion during his taxi trip from the airport to the city centre.

"The last thing I want to do is pick someone else's team, I hated when other managers did that when I was managing Scotland. So I wouldn't like to be presumptuous.

"But I would trust Martin O'Neill. If you were Scotland, and you look at the trams and see a guy with all those goals and appearances, you know you have a problem. If you're the Scottish defence, you look at his record… he can score a goal.

"Equally, if he comes off the bench, he is what I would call a 'cheer' substitution. I used to call Ally McCoist that. It was a positive substitution. McCoist was a great guy to get the team lifted. I would imagine Robbie Keane is like that.

"A goal is required, he is immediately lifts the crowd. If he's on from the start, he's a problem for Scotland, even if he's come on as a substitute. There are "boo" substitutions as well. I've had plenty of those…"

The standard of player in both countries has steadily declined since the heady late 1980s and early 1990s. "We had players in the Scottish team then in the Liverpool team - Nicol, Souness, Gillespie, Hansen, we had three Manchester United players, Leighton, Strachan, McClair."

Ireland will field two Scots of their own this weekend in the guise of James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady; if Brown had his way, they would be playing for the visitors.

"I personally think the rule should be you are either born in Scotland or your parents are, not your grandparents, same with the manager."

Craig Brown is in Dublin as part of the McDonald's FAI Future Football Programme

Irish Independent