Craig Brown - Football Manager

There are two go-to punditry lines when discussing Aberdeen. There is the lazy and incorrect '80s throwback option to suggest that the fans still have unrealistic expectations. And if feeling a touch more lenient towards the Dons’ support, they may patronisingly say that Scottish football’s top flight needs a strong Aberdeen FC. Well maybe we are close to getting a strong Aberdeen side, and maybe even having some of the supporters' realistic expectations be realised.

Pittodrie, for the first time in a fair while, seems like a happy place to be. When Johnny Hayes gave the press conference during the week ahead of the weekends routine 2-0 win over Dundee, positive words were flowing: “Everyone has been buzzing in training”; “Confidence is high”; “From the first day I came here I knew it was the right move, we’ve got a great squad”.

Positive noises indeed from a player who has been reduced to a bit part roll of late such is the form of other wide men Niall McGinn and Ryan Fraser.

Fraser, it should also be noted, has evidently been on the same media training course of saying the right thing to keep the fans happy. When he was asked if he was flattered by comparisons to Jimmy Johnstone and Willie Henderson he replied that he was not, and that former Dons hero Peter Weir was his inspiration.

So what has brought about this change and, dare it be said, ‘feel-good factor’ to Aberdeen?

Things have not always been so rosy for Craig Brown at Aberdeen. Sitting comfortably in the top half of the table is the exception as opposed to the rule of his tenure in charge. Questions were being raised as to what progress was being made as short a while ago as last season. The Dons were languishing in the bottom half. But Brown always insisted that shoots of recovery were there, and he wanted to be judged once he had got his team in place, once four or five transfer windows had passed.

So if now is a time when judgement can be passed, the report card seems to makes for fair reading. Who am I to judge though? I am more than willing to admit that I am no expert on football management. However I am no novice, having been finely schooled by the computer game Football Manager (formerly known as Championship Manager).

When Martin Jol was in charge of Tottenham there was a suggestion that he was schooled by the game also, due to his signings of popular in-game players such as Mido, Andy Reid, Dorian Dervite, Michael Dawson, and an ageing Edgar Davids. Maybe he signed these players because of his excellent scouting network, or maybe his scouting network was the same research team as that of Football Manager.

Martin Jol may not been the only one to have managed with his mouse, I can reason to believe that Craig Brown has also taken a few lessons in the Football Manager School of Management.

Whenever you set out with your team in Football Manager, all the nonsense of having a strong squad goes out the window, you picked your first eleven. And when this season was about to begin, it seemed that Craig Brown had a first eleven in mind:

Langfield (GK)
Jack (RB)
Anderson (CB)
Considine (CB)
Naysmith (LB)
Osbourne (DM)
Rae (CM)
Hughes (AM)
Hayes (AMR)
McGinn (FL)
Vernon (ST)

Then who to supplement the first team with? Well there are a limited number of places on the bench, you need to cover your options, and versatility becomes the key. Just as I would regularly sign Steven Reid because his position was Defender/Midfielder/Forward (Right/Left/Centre), one must assume that the only reason Chris Clark was brought back to Pittodrie was because he can play anywhere across the midfield or possibly fill in at full back.

Josh Magennis was deemed not good enough to play up front, but some quick training into the new position of right-back, and there is the versatile substitute that anybody whoever contemplated signing Adam Virgo could relate to.

As well those versatile gap-fillers, to comply with those cursed regulations, you would have to have some youth players on the bench. And once every so often, one of those players would shine upon coming off the bench, and force their way into first-team contention. And while Ryan Fraser may never go on to score that Champions League quarter-final winning goal just as Andrew Bagshaw did for me, the similarities are clear to see.

A centre half pairing was always the desired foundation to your team. But then again, they’ll never last the whole season without suspension or injury. You will struggle to find someone who is happy to sit on the bench as number three. The solution to this, bring in a centre half on loan, another key part of the squad assembly. In Football Manager you would scour the under-21 sides of the bigger leagues to get someone such as Alan Tate in for a season. Craig Brown has taken in Mark Reynolds. When you have a back four, you always need a fifth. If they force their way into the four, then that is fine. Mark Reynolds has very much forced his way into contention, and is now more number one than five, partially due to injuries allowing him the opportunity to get into the side and largely due to him being a very good defender for the standard of the SPL.

This is not a squad that Brown has built up with coincidence. He has been working towards a system and picking the players to compliment it for the past few transfer windows. To get the fans on your side by signing a former fans favourite (Russell Anderson) is a tactic straight from the FM rulebook. When you have a lot of young players coming through you search for players who have experience, whose influence is at a level of 15 or greater. The additions of Stephen Hughes and Gavin Rae as well as Anderson have given Aberdeen some of the SPL street smarts that they had perhaps been missing. It also means the young players are not being thrust in and expected to perform immediately, and can be eased in under the guidance of the older heads. Clichéd words perhaps, but not without merit. Also, it shows a wise adherence to the policy of when signing players on a free transfer, stick to players whose name you have heard of (see West, Taribo from real life and Football Manager fame).

The side needed a midfield enforcer, after having been too long something of a soft touch. Fire a defensive midfielder with strength and tackling both at 15+ into the search engine and you get Isaac Osbourne. And just as the manager pats himself on the back for finding this player, coach reports soon get back to him to tell him that he is fast becoming a fans favourite. Even computer games know that Scottish football fans love a tough-tackler.

In press match conferences before and after the game, Craig Brown normally just takes the safe option. He quietly talks up the team, and is often complimentary towards his peers. He might not be adopting the Ferguson or Mourinho strategies of trying to create some kind of siege mentality, but instead he is taking the simpler approach. You would not think it would take a mastermind to think up the approach Craig Brown went with and praised his team’s own supporters to get them on side. Then again, his predecessor falsely accused the Pittodrie faithful of spitting him. (Details of Craig Brown’s predecessor at Aberdeen can be found on Wikipedia…).

The analogy of Craig Brown honing his managerial skills on the PC is admittedly, far from full-proof. The classic computer games couldn’t account for your back-up goalkeeper going on Twitter and spouting crap at levels of a worryingly increasing frequency, and they also don’t factor in that your young protégé may lose his wallet in the snow the night before a game. Then again, in real life you are never going to forget that a player has returned from suspension and annoyingly overlooked this and not put him back in your first eleven.

There are a number of conclusions that could be drawn from this.

Firstly there is the possibility Craig Brown was an avid fan of the Championship/Football Manager franchise and it is through these games that he has honed his managing prowess. This isn’t likely. Craig Brown was in management long before the games gained their popularity and is of the age where the news of the termination of Ceefax will have come as a hammer blow.

Then there is the alternative that I am a football managing protégé in the making, I have the tactical nuances to have what it takes to make it in top level football management. This is even less likely than the first possibility.

Or maybe, just maybe, Craig Brown is doing a decent job because he has been allowed time, and is doing the sensible and the simple things. He is not doing the management equivalent of trying to re-invent the wheel, he is taking a reasoned approach. Aberdeen were something of a light touch, and their goals against column was regularly the worst in the league. When you take over a side like that your first step is not to bring a fresh approach of Barcelona style tiki-taka football, it is to try and make that side hard to beat.

Aberdeen games are now, more often than not, tight affairs. Of the thirteen games Aberdeen have played so far this season, there has been nothing more than a goal separating the sides on eleven occasions. Twice since Brown has taken over, Aberdeen have gone on unbeaten runs in excess of ten games, but on both these occasions the majority of results have been draws.

Once the side has become harder to beat and more organised, then comes the step of trying to introduce flair and more goals into the side. Brown is slowly trying to introduce this to Aberdeen. Fraser, McGinn and Hayes have all impressed and shown themselves capable of being able to make a difference in those tightly contested affairs.

Brown has done a good job so far at Aberdeen and does deserve praise for this. If he were to look at his job status it would currently sit at being very secure. Though the job he is being judged upon so far is mainly the clean-up operation of what had gone on before. If his side can kick on from this solid start, then he could go on to do a very good job. Win a trophy? That would be to achieve legendary status.

Rumours that when Jimmy Calderwood was playing Football Manager he resigned from the Real Madrid post because their board wouldn’t sanction the appointment of Sandy Clark as coach are as yet, unfounded.


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