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Influence of Brown there in black and white . . .

STUART McCALL, the Motherwell manager, is worried that the away fans might not be interested in their side's match today.

Scott Brown has steered clear of injury to make a real impact on Celtic's charge to the title and earn praise from his manager and Motherwell's Stuart McCall. Picture: SNS
Scott Brown has steered clear of injury to make a real impact on Celtic's charge to the title and earn praise from his manager and Motherwell's Stuart McCall. Picture: SNS

The league is already won. There may be the odd grand record to strive for, the 100 points, the goals conceded, but Celtic's focus is on next season's Champions League qualifying ties.

Plus, Keith Lasley is suspended. "We'll miss him," McCall grinned. "Three thousand Celtic fans won't turn up to boo and throw stuff at him. Our crowd's going to dip for sure."

McCall's pre-match thoughts, though, mostly concerned the Celtic captain. He was effusive in his praise for Scott Brown, saying the midfielder had deserved a nomination - like three of his team-mates - for the Cheque Centre/PFA Scotland Player of the Year Award.

Free from injury, for once, McCall believes Brown's fierce midfield drive has dragged the champions through their remarkable campaign.

He rattled off Celtic's list of nominees. "[Virgil] van Dijk has been outstanding," he pointed out. "[Kris] Commons, terrific . . . he'll probably win and deserve to win player of the year. [Fraser] Forster, obviously. You could probably name another couple of Celtic players.

"But for me, the consistency they have shown this season in the league stems from Scott Brown. We beat them when he was out [last season]. The job he does for the team, the dirty bits in less glamorous games . . . he won't allow people to down tools. In games that are not as glamorous you need people who are the same no matter if they are playing Barcelona or, no disrespect, Ross County."

McCall and Brown have not always seen eye to eye. After the 2011 Scottish Cup final they exchanged angry words in the newspapers. McCall tilted his head and squinted when reminded. "I don't know, what was that about again? Hand on heart . . ."

The tale was told. Brown had walked into the media zone fuming. A challenge from Lasley on Glenn Loovens was "disgusting", the Celtic captain raged. "If they want to go above the ball and that's the way their manager wants to play then so be it."

The comments were "embarrassing", according to McCall back then. Perhaps diplomatically, the current version managed to keep a straight face. "Was it straight after?" he said, pausing. "But it's pot, kettle and black if he's moaning about kicking! It's like me going on about kicking.

"Listen, he's a really good lad. I've worked with him closely now for Scotland, and it doesn't matter if we're playing Belgium at home in a qualifier, or going away to play Poland or Norway or whatever. He treats the game the same. And that's what you need at this time of the season. You need leaders on the park."

Neil Lennon, his counterpart this afternoon, was inclined to agree. The Celtic manager was delighted that a trio of his title winners were up for the big award - unlike last year - but felt that Brown was deserving too. "I was very pleased, it's difficult to separate them," said Lennon. "Everyone will have their own thoughts on it. I'm just delighted we got three in there, I'd like to have seen Scott in there as well.

"He's had a fantastic season but I'm delighted for those three and they are the three front runners as far as we're concerned. To be honest with you, Kris Boyd has had a great season considering where Kilmarnock are, to score the amount of goals he's done, he's a worthy nominee as well."

Lennon outlined the improvements he's seen in Brown this season. "Scott is a really good all-round player now, a really rounded top player and he's playing really well for his country as well. He's become a mainstay of that and that pleases me.

"There's a maturity about him now. We all know he let himself down in the Barcelona game [when he was sent off in a Champions League tie] but, take that away, in the season overall he's been pretty consistent.

"He's a great driving force on and off the field and I think he's really coming into his peak years now. The thing is he's been injury-free, he's had a good run at it this year. Last year was horrific for him but obviously the surgery has worked and he's been really consistent."

McCall's squad, unfortunately for him, is anything but injury-free. Stuart Carswell and Paul Lawson have been ruled out for the rest of the season and, with Lasley suspended, it means that none of his first-choice central midfield players are available. He pointed out that Simon Ramsden, too, who has filled in with distinction, is likely to miss the run-in and James McFadden has only just resumed training.

McCall was philosophical about his strife, never one to make excuses. "I've been here three-and-a-half years and for two-and-a-half years I've been really lucky [with injuries]," he said.

"This year, we've been hit badly. Maybe three stone ago I'd have got a game."

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