“‘Here at last is a true lover,’ said the Nightingale. ‘Night after night have I sung of him, though I knew him not: night after night have I told his story to the stars, and now I see him.'”
Oscar Wilde’s portrayal of the Student in The Nightingale and the Rose, it seems, was the kind romantic notion to which some members of Dundee FC’s boardroom wanted the appointment of John Brown as manager to be imagined. Coming into the last week of February 2013 in difficult circumstances after 12 league matches without a win, “Bomber” was believed by some to be the man with the hunger to achieve what he wanted, to give Dundee the opportunity to catch the teams above them and survive their first season back in Scotland’s top table for seven years.
The Nightingale, indeed, was convinced that she ought to sacrifice herself towards the Student’s end, on the notion that “Love is wiser than Philosophy, though she is wise, and mightier than Power, though he is mighty”. If Brown’s old pal and Dundee CEO Scot Gardiner thought similarly of Brown’s passion to succeed in his first few months and beyond, he, just like Wilde’s songbird, turned out to be naively mistaken.
In Brown’s case, he had been fighting a lost cause from the outset. Having been announced as the successor to Barry Smith at a supporters’ Q&A evening at Dens Park, the statement was received so negatively that Brown, allegedly waiting to be unveiled from the next room, never made it through the door amid the furore. His reputation had preceded him: between a disastrous time in charge of Clyde and his brave but ultimately embarrassing rhetoric on the steps of Ibrox just a few months previously, Dundee’s fans didn’t want the same public humiliation arriving at their club.
At that point of the 2012-13 SPL season, the Dees were in a grim position. Cut adrift at the bottom of the table by 15 points in the middle of February, they had lost seven more matches than their nearest rivals St Mirren. A difficult season was to have been expected, with a late invitation to the Premier League following Rangers’ demise scuppering Barry Smith’s plans of preparing for a First Division title challenge – the budget, signing strategy and aspirations were instantaneously turned on their head. For some, accepting a year of purgatory and profiting from living well within their means was a reasonable long-term approach, and one that would potentially have seen them return to and consolidate themselves within the top flight soon enough. At Dundee, however, turning the other cheek was not tolerable and the run of 12 consecutive matches without a league win coincided with Smith losing his job.
Without question, Brown’s own 12 matches at the end of the season compared better to his predecessor’s. As a character renowned for his blue-collar oratory, in a sense he could have been just the right man for the job. Brown won four of those games, eked out a clutch of draws, and made his team very difficult to beat. Had he been afforded the opportunity to maintain his earned points-to-games ratio over the entire year, Dundee would have avoided relegation with some comfort, but sport isn’t quite that simple. With hindsight, Brown’s management over the whole season – with full use of the transfer windows – might have caused more harm than good, sooner rather than later.
Brown’s success towards the end of the campaign can be placed on a couple of things. His motivation on the playing staff certainly made an impact: Stuart Kettlewell claimed during his time at of being captain under Brown at Clyde that “…if things weren’t going well, he’d let you know. He could be quite scary, but for the likes of me, that can work as well as just talking to you. The kick up the backside can be a good thing as well, it’s just a different approach.”
The different angle, even if perceived to be abrasive from the outside, brought a response from the change in style of Barry Smith. While Smith proved with his side’s unbeaten run through 2010-11 that he had excellent management qualities of his own – he avoided relegation to Division Two with a threadbare squad and would have earned enough points to mount a title challenge if it wasn’t for a 25 point deduction for administration – his passive approach to dealing with players was contrasted with Brown’s to quite an extent (even if it is alleged that Gardiner was able to to coincide Brown’s arrival at Dens Park with the doubling of win bonuses for the matchday squad in lieu of scrapping gratuities for drawing games).
Brown’s tendency to speak before thinking undermined what he was producing on the park.
Brown’s management didn’t suit everybody, of course, with the iconic Rab Douglas quickly usurped by Steven Simonsen, despite the new manager’s first signing living and training in Preston before meeting up with his team-mates from Thursday onwards. Douglas’s subsequent run-in with Brown was as well known as it was undignified, but the goalkeeper’s swift departure from the club was only one of a number of eyebrow-raising moments. Soon after taking over, Brown embarrassed himself on national radio when discussing a strategy on how Scotland should contain Gareth Bale in their upcoming meeting with Wales (“he can’t run without legs”), and was only too happy to discuss the ongoing misfortune at Rangers in the media at any opportunity. His tendency to speak before thinking undermined what he was producing on the park.
Another reason for the relative success in Brown’s first few months at Dundee was the use of a 3-5-2 formation. The system is often underused in Scottish football, despite the continued prevalence of 4-4-2 among all the divisions (something that was particularly true of the bottom six clubs of last season’s SPL). With a spare centre-back and an extra central midfielder over their opponents, it afforded Brown the luxury of utilising Gary Harkins in a free attacking role behind either John Baird or Carl Finnigan, workhorses who compensated for Harkins’ offhand playing style. While it might have been pejoratively argued that Brown deviated from Barry Smith’s own 4-4-2 set-up in the only way he knew how by reprising Walter Smith’s classic 3-5-2 at Rangers from the mid-to-late nineties (this time with Harkins assuming Brian Laudrup’s expressive role behind the central striker), it must be said that the trap worked against Heart of Midlothian, Kilmarnock and St Mirren (twice). Despite their best efforts, Dundee were relegated from the SPL at the beginning of May but nonetheless, it is one thing to discover the success of a reactive strategy when placed at the bottom of the division with nothing to lose, and quite another to bear the pressure of being heavy favourites to win the league below. It wasn’t too long for Brown’s failings to become apparent.
He didn’t exactly have a bad summer transfer window. The manager ensured he had a proven source of goals for Championship level by plucking Peter MacDonald from the previous season’s title challengers Greenock Morton (together with left-back Willie Dyer) and while a few others were also recruited, as many as 14 players who had represented the first team in the SPL departed. So far, so normal. But even then, there was a concern that a lack of creativity, width and pace in midfield could present a problem: Gavin Rae, Iain Davidson, Kevin McBride and Stephen O’Donnell were broadly too similar in playing styles; the injury-prone Nicky Riley was the only proven winger in the squad; and Jim McAlister was the only other midfielder to typically offer runs beyond opposing lines. The lack of vigour in a key part of the team would eventually turn out to be one of Brown’s biggest shortcomings.
Dundee started the current league campaign as they finished the previous one with a 3-5-2 formation, but it was instantly found out to be rigid, inflexible and too demanding of some players to operate out of position to accommodate it. It didn’t help that their first league opposition was Jim McIntyre’s Queen of the South, a side built around wide forwards in a 4-3-3 system. No longer did Brown have the numerical superiority in defence, and nor did he enjoy the advantage in midfield. The sudden change in tactical environment from the slumbering mediocrity of the SPL’s bottom six caught Brown cold and it was only the frailties of Queens goalkeeper Calum Antell that allowed Dundee back into the game. The Dees would eventually lose 3-4.
Given the quality of players available for selection, however, Brown proved to be his own tactical adversary.
Not every team tested Brown’s acumen in the same way and, despite their stuttering away form at the beginning of the season, Dundee’s unbeaten home record saw them collect enough points to ascend the Championship table. Given the quality of players available for selection, however, Brown proved to be his own tactical adversary. The 1-3 loss away to Falkirk was the worst result and poorest performance of the first quarter, with the manager experimenting once again: his 4-4-2 formation, built around a midfield diamond, had winger Nicky Riley as the player deployed at its tip instead of the right flank, an area where the Bairns’ unending energy made space a premium. Falkirk were only beginning to hit their rhythm for the season but Dundee’s capitulation was surprising and disappointing to many.
Craig Beattie had joined in a state of fitness barely good enough to sustain regular football by then, but he was still capable of providing moments of match-winning quality. It was Peter MacDonald, however, who won the majority of Dundee’s games for Brown over the next couple of months, scoring seven times in eight matches including the last goal in a moral-boosting 3-0 away victory at Hamilton Academical, a side who were beginning to suffer without player-manager Alex Neil in midfield. At that point, Dundee were the form team in the league, clambering from fourth to second – it didn’t even seem as if the lack of cover in defence and the one-paced, one-dimensional midfield could stop them when there was genuine quality further forward.
At the turn of the year, Dundee had won nine of their last 12 league matches. They went into 2014 top of the Championship, two points ahead of Hamilton and seven ahead of Falkirk (who had a match in hand to play). Brown’s side had scored the best home record as well as the best away card, proving them worthy of being top of the table. Statistically, little could be complained about.
Empirically, however, the quality of the football wasn’t good enough. For the most part, Brown stuck to the tried-and-tested 4-4-2, but the balance was all wrong. Gavin Rae had left Barry Smith’s Dundee side two years ago as a midfielder in his mid-thirties who could still drive forward off the ball and bring a physical edge to proceedings, but he returned under Brown a diminished player, a veteran with all the experience but none of the athleticism that made his previous spell a success. His laboured play slowed Dundee’s tempo down to a debilitating extent, yet he was always his manager’s first choice and has been an ever-present in the team until now.
Elsewhere, Iain Davidson was persisted with at centre-back, a position he attempted to make his own with earnest effort but mental errors and a decline in confidence held him back from producing consistently sound performances in a key area. While he was sometimes keeping Kyle Benedictus out of the team to play in an unfamiliar role, he should have been displacing Rae in the midfield in a position much more suited to his capabilities. Riley, meanwhile, was frequently moved away from the right flank and switched with Ryan Conroy, and with the 37-year-old Matt Lockwood played at left full-back and Gary Irvine no longer the confident defender he once was, there was rarely any width in the team.
While the home loss to Cowdenbeath in the middle of December was sandwiched among five victories, it didn’t actually come as a surprise and was the fruition of the ailing symptoms within the team. Cowden outmaneuvered Dundee with a three-centre-back system of their own and, while Brown changed up the orthodox 4-4-2 by introducing some pace and urgency via Martin Boyle before his opponents took the lead, his side ought to have been losing the match already on the balance of play and Kane Hemmings’ missed penalty.
When Riley fell injured in late December, neat-and-tidy central midfielder Kevin McBride was played out on the right wing. Without Riley and the absent MacDonald, also missing through some lurgy, the situation was dire and there was precious little chance of Dundee scoring. As teams sat back and invited them to create opportunities, Brown could not successfully configure his side into something penetrative that could break down tight defences.
The lack of evolution in the team was as uncanny as the parallels with Brown’s management at Clyde. Furthermore, his Dundee side around the turn of the year resembled something eerily similar to how Smith set out towards the end of the 2011-12 season, when they were on a downturn in form following Rae’s departure to Aberdeen. The constants in the two sides were Irvine, Lockwood, McBride, Conroy and Riley. That in itself is no bad thing but the other recurring theme was, as always, the lack of penetrating width when Riley was unavailable, something that has not been addressed since. With so many players wanting to operate infield, Dundee have recently been as predictable as they sometimes were two seasons ago.
They needed more wingers and more attacking midfielders, then. But Brown’s squad was so bloated and so unbalanced that he already had a playing staff of 26 by the time he was dismissed, with six orthodox central midfielders and as many as eight centre-forwards around the first team (including Leighton McIntosh, who had only just been sent out on loan to Arbroath at the end of January). Such resources comfortably outstripped every other club in the Championship, but it always seemed that he was never truly happy enough with the squad he had at his disposal.
Brown’s January signings somehow contrived to make a ponderous team lose more zest than it ever had.
“We could do with another creative player,” Brown acknowledged at the beginning of January. That creative player turned out to be Stephen Hughes, who along with Rae endured a difficult campaign with Aberdeen the previous season. At the time, the veteran partnership was criticised for being slow, predictable and without a cutting edge; having them back together again, this time at a level below, made no sense. Signed along with Hughes was Christian Nadé, a player who it was alleged could not even get fit enough to be signed on a permanent basis by League 1’s East Fife at the start of the season. Nadé proved on his debut against Falkirk that his strength and size is almost without peer in the league, and he certainly provides a different kind of option to the rest of the squad, but by the inclusion of him and Hughes the manager somehow contrived to make a ponderous team lose more zest than it ever had. Young defender Adam Cummins was brought in on loan alongside winger Sean Bonnet-Johnson, but neither played in their brief time under Brown’s reign.
Although it was the slightly unfortunate draw at home to Barry Smith’s new club Alloa Athletic that directly preceded Brown’s sacking, it was the second defeat away to Falkirk that was the definitive performance of his downfall. The recently departed manager reverted to the 3-5-2 that had mixed success earlier in the season, but it only lasted 20 minutes as it became clear that it was not working. With Philip Roberts abandoning his usual forward position to work the flanks, Dundee had two redundant defenders. Meanwhile, the numerical equality in midfield did not make up for the chastening difference in zeal between the two teams. Reverting back to a 4-4-2 only resulted in players being played out of position (with Hughes, like McBride before him, uncomfortably placed on the right wing) and by half-time Dundee were a man down and out of the contest, ceding first place in the league as a result.
None of that was a surprise, though: Falkirk’s win came during an unbeaten run since the end of October, while Dundee’s momentum had been reversed for a couple of weeks to such an extent that it was inevitable they would lose their place at the top of the table. At the point of Brown’s dismissal, they were only a slightly inferior goal difference away from returning to the summit, yet the lasting impression was that they were competing for the title because no-one else had emerged as genuine title favourites. Had Dundee been top of the league in spite of John Brown’s management?
The club are still in a strong position, but their bad form must be arrested immediately before Falkirk have the opportunity to build an unassailable lead at the top of the table. Paul Hartley has been announced as their new manager, and the Dundee board have appointed a person whose confidence in his own strategic planning and trust in the scientific method will have the squad taken down a different approach to Brown’s trenchant hoarding. Hartley will not have the utility of the transfer window to shape the team as he would like, but if he can arouse the undoubted qualities within the large squad then Dundee must still be strong contenders for promotion to the Premiership.
Nevertheless, there must be some scepticism from both sides. On one hand, Brown follows John McCormack, Jim Duffy and Jocky Scott as Dundee managers dismissed in the past 17 years while having their team top of the table (on goal difference, at least) – can Hartley be assured that the invariable boardroom shenanigans will not affect his long term future at the club? On the other, he has only just recently shown form for quitting his post when the going gets tough – his sudden departure from Alloa, having lost three matches in a row for the first time in his managerial career, still strikes as being an over-sensitive reaction to the first moment of resistance. Those points are likely to be lost within the sense of relief that Dundee have appointed a young, progressive manager who has the potential to be an unqualified success, but history has a habit of repeating itself at Dens Park.
What of Brown himself? His year in charge of Dundee was not as calamitous as his management of Clyde, but it is difficult to guess what other senior club will allow him to take on their first team given the strong evidence against him of failing to responsibly oversee a playing budget and his disappointing use of personnel, not to mention his self-ignorant public image formed by his own actions. If he does have aspirations of managing again then he will benefit from reflection and some deep analysis of what went wrong in his last two jobs.
“‘What a silly thing Love is,’ said the Student as he walked away. ‘It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true. In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.'”
Alas, it was never meant to be for John Brown and Dundee. As Wilde’s protagonist found out that blind passion alone often falls to the fickle vagaries of his quarry’s opinion, and to logic and reason, so Brown found himself fighting against common pre-judgements. Those assumptions turned out to be correct for the most part, with lucidity and organisation defeating his emotion and ability to stir through rhetoric. As the rose’s immediate impression soon turned out to give little more than brief optimism towards happiness ahead, Brown could not live up to expectations of winning at Dundee. As the rose was cast into into the gutter and under the cart-wheel, Brown is in danger of the very same thing happening to his managerial career.