There wasn't much of a mood to laugh along with Brown yesterday, mind you. Celtic supporters felt too wounded by the ruinous intervention of their captain during the second half of the Champions League group game against Barcelona. As he had in Milan, Brown intruded on the play in a way which had grave repercussions for his team.
First of all, it's worth stating that what he did to Neymar wasn't worthy of the straight red card shown to him by French referee Stephane Lannoy 59 minutes into Barcelona's 2-1 win. Neither the initial trip which brought down the 21-year-old Brazilian, nor the glancing kick which brushed either his left ribcage or his left arm when he was on the ground, met the criteria for being dismissed.
A red card has to be shown when there is serious foul play or violent conduct. The former is defined as "excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play". The rules further state: "A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play". As for violent conduct, the definition is: "A player is guilty of violent conduct if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball."
Brown didn't use "excessive force" with that silly little sweep of his boot, and certainly not "brutality". Nor did he endanger Neymar's safety. Football is a contact sport and not every petulant little off-the-ball kick is a red card. The ironic thing is that Brown could have been sent off for two bookable offences - the initial foul and then the kick were both cautionable - but neither merited a straight red.
This is an interpretation of the rules rather than an expression of sympathy. Even if his "crime" was minor, that flash of temper and decision to give Neymar a little boot was an impulsive act which meant he let down himself, his team-mates and manager Neil Lennon. Brown's overall "indiscipline" has been exaggerated since Tuesday night. Until that incident it had been 33 months since he was last sent off, in a game against Motherwell, which isn't bad for a fiercely competitive box-to-box midfielder. He can be a provocative, challenging presence, getting into the faces of opponents who have niggled him, but he has never been a wild or combustible figure despite a reputation for being combative. Still, there's no getting away from the fact he has flirted with trouble too often in the current European campaign.
In the second leg of the qualifier against Shakhter Karagandy he stamped on defender Gediminas Vicius and was very fortunate to go unpunished for it. Later he was booked for celebrating provocatively in front of goalkeeper Aleksandr Mokin after Celtic's third goal. When the group stage began in Milan it was Brown who brought down Mario Balotelli and conceded a free-kick just outside the area. Balotelli was giving as good as he got, but the result was the set-piece from which the Italian hit a stunning strike. The rebound from Fraser Forster's save was buried by Sulley Muntari.
So in Milan on matchday one, and Glasgow on matchday two, Brown had the sort of rushes of blood to the head which invite attention and trouble from referees. It is still up to officials to make the correct judgments but had Brown not let his guard down Celtic would still have been only 1-0 down in Milan with a few minutes left to equalise, and they would have had an improved chance of holding on for a morale-boosting goalless draw with Barcelona. Lannoy and his assistants clearly felt that Brown had given Neymar a hard and violent kick. At 28, he should be past the point where he needs to be told to keep the head, especially in an environment like the Champions League in which Celtic will only ever have a chance if their players keep their cool.
As things stand Group H is becoming a slow, tortuous ordeal for them. They have been level with AC Milan in the San Siro past the 80th minute and equal with Barcelona after 70. In neither match have they looked out of their depth and in addition to generally coping with some high-quality forwards they have made a handful of their own chances in both fixtures. There is no merit in clinging to the lifebelts of the old clichés, though. Their performances haven't been about bravery or heroism or rank bad luck. AC Milan and Barcelona were the better teams and each narrowly deserved their victory.
Both of them had more of the ball (although only marginally in Milan's case), and made more and better chances. Celtic's satisfaction has come only in how well they competed with two of the most experienced of all Champions League clubs. They actually had considerably more of the ball against Barcelona on Tuesday than when beating them at Parkhead 11 months ago.Barcelona are on maximum points and are easing towards their expected group victory. AC Milan are on four, Ajax one, and Celtic zero. The two defeats so far have been easily forgiven given the opposition and the circumstances but Lennon knows there will be some explaining to do if Ajax also come to Glasgow and win the next group game on October 22. The Dutch champions lost 4-0 in Camp Nou yet made a number of really good chances and failed to convert a penalty. They were within seconds of beating AC Milan after going ahead against the run of play on Tuesday, only to concede an equaliser deep into stoppage time when Mario Balotelli "won" a penalty for himself and scored it.
In short, Ajax deserve respect. If they are the "easiest" team Celtic will face in the group then they are also the one closest to them in resources and status. Celtic's targeting of the upcoming double-header as the best chance of harvesting points in this group will be an attitude matched by Ajax themselves. The game at Parkhead and the return in Amsterdam on November 6 promise to be compelling and revealing about whether Celtic really are making the Champions League progress that many, including Lennon, claim.
They should see more of the ball against Frank de Boer's team than they have in either of the matches so far and they will have to use it far more productively. Statistics can be manipulated to suit an argument but Uefa's figures recorded that Celtic attempted 232 passes against Barcelona and found their man with 114 of them. That's a completion rate of 49%, and bluntly that means they gave the ball away more often than they held on to it. Barcelona, although they play countless short and safe passes during every match and keep the ball for the sake of it, had a completion rate of 88%.
If Barcelona now complete a double over AC Milan they will be in a group all of their own, leaving the Italians, Ajax and Celtic to compete for second. Celtic are not out, but they are down. What they now need is discipline on the pitch and points on the board.