Billy Brown’s post-match interview after East Fife’s defeat to Stenhousemuir is likely to be remembered as the season’s most extraordinary moment. His wild-eyed stare, his relentless pacing and his aggressive overtones have seen the clip achieve notoriety, with the manager even appearing on Sky Sports News to explain his actions. Railing against both the poor quality of his players and the club’s overly negative support, Brown and East Fife have inadvertently become the centre of some minor national attention.
I have watched the original interview on three separate occasions, with each viewing provoking three very different reactions. The first prompted astonishment and jaw-dropping hilarity. I imagine it did for most people. After watching it for a second time, I felt genuine concern for Brown’s mental wellbeing – this was a man at the end of his tether: he’s as mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.
But viewing it for a third time, where I was able to pick apart at his words and afford them the scrutiny they deserved, there was nothing amusing about it, nor was there anything to feel pity towards: Brown is sly and insidious. In both interviews his message is the same: the players are shit and the fans are shit and none of it’s my fault. The manager has effectively absolved himself from any responsibility for East Fife’s current plight of 14 games without a win and has passed the blame exclusively onto the players.
These are not Brown’s players – he makes that quite clear from his first interview and his repeated use of the word “they” – and he has washed his hands with them, wanting nothing more to do with them.
“I’ve done all I can with them,” he said, exasperated. “They’re a decent bunch of boys who do as they’re told but they keep losing games […] The players here are what we’ve got! This is all we’ve got, this is all we’ve had since the beginning of the season, really. I got a couple of young boys in but this is all we’ve had.”
There are capable players within the East Fife squad – players who were certainly good enough when Brown won four of his first six games in charge. For instance, Paul McManus is a fine Second Division striker; Bobby Barr, a capricious yet talented winger, should star at this level; and Hibernian’s on-loan goalkeeper Calum Antell is highly regarded by his parent club. Furthermore, there are still players in the current team who defeated Aberdeen in the League Cup last season – Scott Durie, Robert Sloan, David Muir, Darren Smith and Michael Brown were all part of the squad involved in that famous victory.
They too are at fault for the team’s lowly league position, but Brown’s stiflingly reductive tactics are doing little to help matters. On Saturday, he described Stenhousemuir’s Ross McMillan and Scot Buist as “big, strong, solid players”, but when his approach involves little more than an everlasting series of long, aimless punts upfield, it is easy to understand why both centre-backs strolled through the game. Both the manager and his players are to blame, yet Brown’s arrogance and unwillingness to admit liability is breath-taking.
Speaking on Sky Sports News yesterday morning, he acknowledged his embarrassment over his behaviour in the original interview. The irony is that while Brown can see the fool he was, he cannot see the fool he is. The hubris is staggering – he pleads for the supporters to get behind his players yet he will not get behind them himself.
There are already deep-seated divisions within the East Fife dressing room as there is, so one can only imagine how Brown’s very public admonishment of his players will have on their morale. He described some of his squad as “not mentally tough” and that “not even a mixture of Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho” could coach them. There appears little motivation for them to play for Brown any more, even in an unlikely attempt to prove him wrong.
It seems incredible that Brown is still employed by the club, yet after receiving the backing of his chairman Sid Collumbine it is likely he will take charge next term. Regardless of what division they play in, a large majority of the squad (if not all) will move on elsewhere. If Brown is given the opportunity to mould his own team with his own players, he must take full responsibility for any failings.
The ire towards the East Fife support is more complex. Abuse from the terraces is commonplace and Brown will have no doubt experienced it elsewhere, but in the intimate setting of New Bayview with a crowd of 461, every jeer and catcall becomes clear and distinguished. In smaller numbers, abuse can very quickly take on a distinctly personal tone.
Such pessimism creates its own perpetual gyre of negativity. When the players perform poorly, the fans begin to jeer them; the abuse begins to affect their confidence and their play declines further; and then the levels of abuse become even more rancorous. New Bayview has a small pocket of notoriously cantankerous supporters who continually appear to revel in their team’s failings (a group whom Brown claims he was forewarned about before taking charge). They, and others across the country might buy into the mantra of “I’ve paid my money so I can shout what I want” – but this doesn’t wash, especially in the lower leagues with crowds of several hundred. It is unwarranted, unhelpful and divisive.
Saturday’s home tie with Alloa Athletic will make for a fascinating spectacle. Should East Fife lose and Stranraer emerge victorious from their clash with Arbroath (and providing there is no unlikely resurgence from Albion Rovers), the Fifers will be guaranteed to finish the season in ninth place. The players, so unloved, disregarded and ultimately abandoned by their mentor, should be warmly encouraged and supported throughout.
Billy Brown deserves no such rapture. It appears he thought the East Fife job was nothing more than a gateway to more lucrative opportunities and with the club in real danger of relegation and with his own reputation at risk, he has purged himself of all responsibility for their decline.
But then, what difference does it make to him? He couldn’t care less; he’s not bothered. If the fans don’t want to get behind him, that’s fine. He’ll go somewhere else.
He’s been places and done things.