Born in October 1981, a couple of miles from Motherwell in a town called Bellshill, Brian played football early on for a local boys club. He initially agreed to a YTS deal with Hibernian but was asked to go and train with Rangers when he was fourteen years old. Scott Gibson – a scout at Newcastle – arranged for United's youth team to go up and play Rangers. Brian, who played as a striker at the time, scored two and after the game Scott approached Brian’s Dad to ask if he’d be interested in him and Brian coming down to Newcastle for a look. They agreed to go down and were ‘wined and dined’ by the club as Newcastle played West Ham on a Monday night game. His Dad received the hospitality treatment while his younger brother, who also attended, was made a ball boy.
"First and foremost, walking into that stadium and seeing the atmosphere, you wanted to be part of that club but also the treatment at such a young age and the welcome was just incredible. To see the first team changing rooms and meet Kevin Keegan and all these first team players – I got Asprilla’s shirt! It was some experience and something that will stay with me forever and from that moment I knew I wanted to join Newcastle should the opportunity come about.
At that age, to get that kind of treatment was unbelievable but that was Newcastle’s way at that time. Stevie and Gary Caldwell had similar treatment and it was just the way they did things then and made you feel really special, like you were part of something already, even though you’d done nothing for the club yet. I think it was more for the parents to show them that you’d be well looked after if you came there, moving away from home. John Murray and John Carver played a massive part in that as well – they ran the academy side of things and had a big say in how the boys coming in were looked after and welcomed."
Brian returned home to Scotland to attend school Monday to Friday but would travel down to Newcastle to play each weekend.
"Myself and Gary Caldwell used to head down on the train after school on a Friday and stayed in a hotel with the other YTS boys by the stadium on the Friday night and then play on the Saturday, before heading back home after the game. So after we’d been down a fair few times and got to know the place a bit, I decided that I wanted to leave school. I had no interest in it at this point – it sounds bad and is the opposite of what I tell kids now – but I just wanted to be part of Newcastle and be there full-time.
It was a bit sooner than expected but I just felt it was right, told my parents and told the school and left school early to join Newcastle. It was certainly a bit earlier than most boys are used to leaving school and home – 15 years old – but it made me learn quickly. Gary Caldwell stayed on and finished but Stevie was already there so I knew him and some of the other boys from the Friday hotel stays so that helped with the transition. The most important thing for me was being part of training every day and doing something that interested me because school just wasn’t doing that."
Once at Newcastle United's Academy, Brian settled in quickly with the help of a Scottish core of both staff and players.
"The academy progression was excellent. We were looked after by some great coaches. Alan Irvine, Kenny Wharton and John Carver – all fantastic coaches – to work with them at such a young age was amazing. It helped that there were a number of Scottish coaches and that made the transition a little easier for me, along with the Scottish boys there too, but the coaches didn’t treat you any different because of it. It just made it easier for us when you’ve made that move away from home at a young age.
Newcastle trained at Durham at the time and I remember my first few days seeing the crowds of thousands watching the first team and I remember my eyes lighting up thinking, 'How do I get myself over there?' We were miles away from that level but going in and seeing that every day as your motivation to reach that level and get involved with that was unbelievable."
Brian's official debut appearance came as an eighteen-year-old in September 2000 as a last-minute replacement for Daniel Cordone in an away win at Coventry in the Premier League.
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"I’d been around the first team squad for a while but the quality of players around that time was unbelievable, right from when I first arrived and the quality remained – especially in the midfield. It made it a real challenge for any young player to break through with who was ahead of you. Jamie McClen had just broken in – who was a couple years older than me but one of the youth players at the time – and I was the one just behind him basically. He started to edge his way in and started getting game time and I’d find myself on the bench. I got on as a last minute sub in that Coventry game but that was it for that season. I don’t know whether the manager thought to give us a little taste and then take us out to continue working hard, rather than give us too much too quickly."
Brian didn't feature for the first team again that season, before making two substitute appearances in the FA Cup (Peterborough and Arsenal) during the 2001/02 season. He then began the 2002/03 season by coming on for the final fifteen minutes of the home leg vs Zeljeznicar in the Champions League qualifier, as a replacement for Nolberto Solano.
"I don’t see the Coventry game as a debut – I don’t know if I even had a touch - and I don't really see the Zeljeznicar game as my debut either. The Liverpool game is what I see as my debut."
Brian, who had never started a game for Newcastle or featured in the first team since the Zeljeznicar appearance, was in the starting eleven for the home game against Liverpool on New Year’s Day 2003.
"The story behind that makes it extra special for me. The younger boys – older academy or reserves – were given the festive period to go back to our families and enjoy Christmas. So I’d been sent away to not come back until the first or second week of January. I'm at home, enjoying time with the family and I get a phone call to say I have to come back to start training with the squad as there’s been a few injuries or niggles.
So I went back down and trained for three or four days in the build-up to the Liverpool game. John Carver says to me, “Listen, you’ve done great this week. You’ve kept yourself fit, you’re looking brilliant, keep going. There’s a chance you might be involved in the Liverpool game if you do.” So I’m thinking I might sneak a place on the bench and that would be brilliant. Then, the day before the game, Bobby came to me in training and said, “Be ready for tomorrow because you’re starting.” I probably came over quite calm to him at the time but I was totally shocked and then it started to hit me about what was around the corner.
It wasn’t a case of putting me in against a struggling team and thinking this might be a good one to give him a game – it was Liverpool – so to put that trust in me was amazing. It probably wasn’t until we got to the stadium and I saw my name on the team sheet and saw the strip with my name on hanging up that it really dawned on me.
Obviously, the night before was New Year's Eve so there were parties and fireworks and all sorts going on. It was hard enough to sleep anyway, with all the excitement and nerves, but then to have that too! It wasn’t even a case of playing the next afternoon either – I had to wait until the next night! So the adrenaline is going and having to wait so long – it felt like forever from when he told me I was playing until the actual game. My parents and girlfriend (now wife) were all really excited for me and they’re getting hyper and I’m thinking, “I need to get some rest here!”
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Newcastle won the game 1-0, courtesy of a Laurent Robert free-kick, and Brian played 73 minutes. After the game, Bobby Robson said, "Clarence (Acuna) was magnificent and Brian fully appreciated his role on the right. Their contribution was immense and by the time they came off we'd forgotten all about the fact that we had five recognised midfielders out."
nufc.com was also full of praise for the debut, 'Those called in to deputise coped with the task admirably. Kerr started in an unfavoured wide right role but played a vital role in stifling the forward bursts of Riise. The Norwegian spearheaded Liverpool's victory here last season with his surging runs but was kept very quiet by Kerr and contributed comparatively little.'
"Once the game kicked off, everything else went away and I just focused on the game. I fed off the energy and the buzz but I didn’t feel any extra pressure once the whistle went and just concentrated on what I was doing. Especially with it being my first game – I was chasing further forward or back than I probably should have – but you don’t want to let anyone down. The supporters, your teammates or the manager for giving you that opportunity."
Brian also started in away wins at Spurs and Leeds in the weeks after the Liverpool game and felt that he played more away from home due to being younger and being able to get up and down the right side, as well as offering more defensive responsibilities.
"From being up the road at home over Christmas to being given starts against these big sides in January and February was amazing and the manager obviously trusted me with that responsibility. The quality of some of the players involved in that squad – sometimes I started ahead of Nobby and to be even mentioned in the same breath as him is unbelievable because, what a football player!
Then you had Gary Speed, Kieron Dyer, Jermaine Jenas, Laurent Robert – so to have these guys as your competition for a starting place was crazy. At the time, you’re thinking I should be starting every week because you need that belief as a player – and I had that, that’s how I felt - but looking back now and thinking about the quality of teammate I had that year, it’s crazy. It was a challenge I was willing to take on but I probably wanted too much too soon. I got that taste of it from Bobby starting me in those big games and I wanted to play every week."
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Newcastle's 2002/03 season will always be remembered for the Champions League campaign and, having made the bench for the home game against Juventus and the away game against Bayer Leverkusen, Brian was given his first start when the German side came to St. James' Park.
"Amazing, absolutely amazing. To be given that responsibility to play in a game like that. I remember sitting before the game – I had no clue that I was playing this time – Bobby hadn’t said anything like he did pre-Liverpool. We're at the stadium and Bobby had this flip chart that he used to write the team on in marker and then he’d flip it over to another page but you could sort of see the letters through the back of the page. I remember passing the room and glancing in and seeing a four-letter name and just thought it was Dyer so scanned to the bench area of the page but couldn’t see a small word there so assumed I hadn’t made the squad.
So we’re sitting in the room and he flips the page over and my eyes just head straight to the bench to look for my name in case I’d missed it but I’m not on it. Bobby’s already reading the team out by this point and calls my name and even then I thought he was just talking to me rather than saying I was starting! That’s how much of a shock it was. Stevie Caldwell was picked too and for the two of us young Scottish boys to be given the responsibility to go and play in the Champions League was unbelievable. Leverkusen were a big side and a big name too.
For me, I think it was my best performance for Newcastle. I was just starting to feel comfortable and that I could play at that level. In previous games, I had a mindset of impressing teammates and giving them the ball when I could have done a bit more myself. That game though, something just clicked and I felt I could do more, take on more responsibility and I felt comfortable playing my own game and really enjoyed the game. It was a great experience."
This game maintained Brian's perfect record as a starter, with Newcastle winning all four games in which he was in the starting eleven. Although used to playing in the more central defensive midfield area, he was being used in a wide area in the games so far and after the Leverkusen game said this to The Chronicle, "It'll take another three or four games playing outside right to really get used to it. That's more of an offensive area and hopefully I can keep going and get more offensive things into my game. Hopefully the gaffer will keep giving me chances."
Although he didn't feature again in the Champions League, Brian was on the bench as Newcastle traveled to Milan.
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"It was absolutely crazy. Seeing 13,000 Newcastle fans behind that goal and the atmosphere they created was incredible – even in the warm-up, half-time or after the game! Being out on the pitch with Stevie, we still talk about it to this day. It was the best away crowd I’ve ever seen."
Outside of The Entertainers, the Newcastle squad around that time was arguably the best for a generation but Brian found two teammates particularly influential during the early years of his career.
"It was a tight group of players but the ones that stand out are Alan Shearer and Gary Speed and it’s because they had real quality but were leaders as well and ultimate professionals. You know the story goes that Shearer never left the training pitch until he scored his last shot – he’d drag the keepers back if he missed his last shot in the small-sided games so he could score before he left. Us as young players, we’d go in early or stay late to do a bit extra work but he’d already be there and these sort of things stick in your mind. He didn’t hit the top corner of the net time after time by chance – it was through hours and hours of training and that desire to be the best. Gary Speed was the same – he drove the values and mentality of what Newcastle was at that time and what the supporters wanted to see. They could accept a misplaced pass or a mistake but they wouldn’t accept someone not giving them 100% and he set that standard every day at the training ground and took it onto the pitch as well."
As well as bringing in Hugo Viana prior to the 2002/03 season, Newcastle had signed Darren Ambrose in the January and then Lee Bowyer moved North prior to the 2003/04 season.
"After the 2002/03 season, I was still very much in and around the squad but having been given that taste of playing in games, I had worked really hard in the off-season and was fitter than ever and came back with a desire to kick on. On top of all the talent that was already there, even more came in and there was an overload of players in the midfield area. So I was coming back with the thought that I could be a Newcastle first team player – maybe not this season but I’d at least be a very good squad player – and then be in the first team the following year. I genuinely thought that but I got deflated with these new signings and I wasn’t finding myself in the match day squads.
I would be sitting in the stands but I still felt I was doing really well. I was involved with the international setup with Scotland but just wasn’t getting the opportunities at Newcastle. I wasn’t asking or expecting to be starting every game but I wanted to be involved more. Gary McAllister was at Coventry and he’d seen me play for Scotland and wanted to take me on loan. I wanted to play football – it was Championship level – but I saw it as a chance to show Newcastle that I was ready, I was fit and that I could step into the team. I wanted the manager to know that he could pick me but it didn’t materialise – I came back from loan and still wasn’t getting the opportunities that I wanted.
There was contract talks towards the end of that season but I think the club were looking at their options and seeing how stacked they were in that position, I was thinking I wanted game time, we both knew I’d be frustrated if I stayed and it became clear that the best thing to do was to move on. I wasn’t expecting to be playing every week and I didn’t turn down a contract or anything like that but Berti Vogts (Scotland manager) had said to me that I needed to be playing regularly to get a call-up and everything just felt right to move on and continue my career somewhere else."
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When Brian's contract expired in 2004, he decided to return to Scotland and signed for Motherwell on a three-year deal but suffered a blow as he ruptured his ACL before the season started.
"I came up there with pretty big expectations, having obviously played for a big club in England. Pre-season was going well fitness-wise and I was looking forward to a fresh start and playing regularly, as well as hopefully getting in the Scotland squad. It was about twenty minutes into the game and that was me out. Anybody who’s done their ACL knows how tough it is – long days, lots of work, tough physically and mentally but I had a great physio who was absolutely brilliant.
Every day we had a clear program, he pushed me and never let me get down. He drove me through the rehab and after a couple of months I started to see some light. He managed to get me back in just over six months, when the average is more like nine months. I almost made the league cup final squad in the February so that was an amazing recovery and, in my mind, was all down to him. It was difficult and even hearing ‘ACL’, your mind instantly goes to what now? Am I finished? What am I going to do now? All those things come rushing into your brain because it has finished careers but he got me through it and helped me focus. I played the last few games of the season and finished with the infamous Helicopter Sunday game.
I was at Motherwell for three full seasons and loved it. It was a great group of boys. It was tight at Newcastle when I was there but there were obviously egos because there were huge name players but Motherwell was just a local team, with no stars or anything like that. It was all hands to the pump basically, a really tight knit place, where you’re on first name terms with everyone from the cleaners to the chairman. It was brilliant to be involved in something like that.
In 2007, Brian left Motherwell to sign a two-year deal with Hibernian and wrote himself into folklore by scoring the winner in the derby on his debut.
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"I had an opportunity to go to Hibs and work with Tommy Craig, who was my reserve team manager at Newcastle. He was assistant now to John Collins and at the time I thought it was a great opportunity to work with Tommy again. I couldn’t have asked for a better start, to go to a new club and score the winner in the derby on your debut. I think after that game I probably should have just hung my boots up and retired. Everything was going great there, I was loving it, we were second in the league and John Collins decided that the club wasn’t pushing in the same direction as he wanted and he stepped down. Mixu Paatelainen came in and had his own ideas and players in mind and I left around nine months after that."
In 2008, Brian had the opportunity to work with another former coach from his Newcastle days when Toronto boss John Carver attempted to bring him to the MLS.
"The move to the MLS was very close to happening, yeah, we’d almost agreed terms. Toronto was a new franchise in the MLS but there were a lot of rules around transfers and non-American players and there was a bit of miscommunication about international clearance and my contract wasn’t signed in time. I came back home with a view to trying the deal again in the January but it never materialised as I ended up signing a short-term deal in the new year to play under Terry Butcher at Inverness until the end of the season."
Inverness were relegated at the end of the season and Brian signed for Dundee just prior to the 2009/10 season but had his contract terminated in October 2010 when the club went into administration.
"It was a tough time. We were going great and everything seemed to be flying, I had a three year deal and we were having a real go at getting to the Premiership. The team looked good and we were sitting twelve points clear at the top of the league. We then lost a couple of games and had a bad spell over the winter and they sacked the manager, who was still top of the league. It hit the team really hard as we all had a tight link and bond with him and it really deflated the dressing room.
We ended up finishing second to Inverness and, from that moment, everything seemed to spiral out of control at the club. We started hearing things about financial problems and the administrators came in and pretty much had to chop half of the squad. They made it clear that anyone who was on half-decent wages was in real jeopardy of not being there any longer. Colin McMenamin, who’d also been at Newcastle, was there at Dundee as well and both of us had our contracts terminated.
So all of these things go through your head. You’ve got family, kids and start to worry about the future. When you sign a three-year deal you think you’re secure for at least that period. You know that the decision will be yours to leave or if the club sells you, you get to negotiate a new contract somewhere else but this situation was obviously different and out of the blue you don’t have a job or any income.
The news didn’t hit me right away and it isn’t until the next week or two when you’re sitting in the house thinking about how you were playing games, life was good, everything was fine and now you have this black hole where you have no idea what’s happening. It was a tough time. It made me think about the longer-term picture and I started getting into property buy-to-lets, doing my coaching qualifications and went to playing part-time at Arbroath."
In the summer of 2016, Brian was given a coaching position at Albion Rovers under manager Darren Young, who he would go on to replace as first-team manager.
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"I was coaching at Motherwell Academy and then had an opportunity to go to Albion with the under-20s, with the remit of moving players into the first team. The club didn’t have much money so that was a vital part of what they wanted to do – promote players from the youth team. The manager left at the end of the season and I was offered the position. The budget had been halved and they saw me as someone who had already brought players through from the youth team so could continue that work of essentially scraping a team together with no money. I couldn’t turn the opportunity down. You don’t get given opportunities very easily – that first chance – and often hear at interviews that you don’t have experience for a job and you wonder how you get that if nobody gives you the opportunity. So I’ll always be thankful for that."
Albion were relegated at the end of the 2017/18 season and Brian left the club soon afterwards, before taking over at Lowland League club East Kilbride.
"They were a great club, really trying to have a go. They’d played against us in the cup when I was at Albion and after we beat them the chairman said he loved how we played and wanted his team to play that way. They were ambitious and a well-run club so I went there and used the experience I’d had at Albion to help me. When I think about the coach I was when I started to then and even to now, it’s completely different and you’re learning and changing all the time. So we had a really good start there and won pretty much all of our games in that early part of the season. We were beating teams by five and six goals, it was great.
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Then Gary (Caldwell) called me to say he wanted me to assist him at Partick Thistle. It was a tough decision because I was flying high and standing on my own two feet at East Kilbride but the opportunity to go three leagues up and be part of a big name in Scottish football was tempting too. Again, I felt the opportunity was something I had to take so went for it. If I’d known some of the things I found out about the way the club was being ran before I went there, maybe I wouldn’t have gone but it is what it is.
After Partick, I went back to Motherwell with the under-18s and I’ve been there since. I enjoy the lack of pressure but the challenge of promoting players. There isn’t that win at all costs pressure or the threat of losing your job if you don’t win at the weekend and I get to do the job with a different mentality. I enjoy the process of making players better and hopefully pushing them on to the first team. So I went full circle, really, returning to Motherwell."
Having played in a Newcastle United team that finished third in the Premier League and competed in the Champions League and then finished his career playing in the lower divisions of Scottish football, Brian offered some of the key differences between the elite and lower leagues.
"Firstly, you’re not playing alongside Gary Speed in the lower leagues so you don’t have that real quality beside you giving you perfect passes every time or reading what you're doing. Secondly, the expectation levels of yourself are higher both from within and from those around you. You’ve played at that elite level so people expect you to be the best player on the pitch. Thirdly, opposition players target you and think, “Well he’s played at Newcastle, let’s see what he’s got.” So, yeah, it's tough but in a different way.
Also, you’re not playing on perfect pitches every week, you don’t have 50,000 fans pushing you on so the motivation needs to come from you rather than a crowd driving you forward. There isn’t the time on the ball either or the space that you get in the Premier League – there’s someone smashing you after two touches at the lower levels. So there’s a lot of different challenges playing outside of the Premier League."
After hanging up his playing boots in 2013 and moving into the coaching world, Brian has had time to reflect on his career and offered an open and honest appraisal.
"I wanted too much too quickly and made some naïve decisions at key times in my career. Especially at Newcastle, I should have been more patient and understood what was in front of me and stayed there longer. I think I could’ve been at Newcastle for a long time if I'd just waited and that is something that I regret, that maybe those conversations could have been a little different in terms of a new contract if I’d had different expectations. I didn’t turn anything down but maybe came at negotiations with an impatience to be playing in the first team.
My second regret is leaving Motherwell because after that there was a lot of chopping and changing in my career and a lot of instability, not all of which was down to me, but I never really settled anywhere else after that.
You say that I played at the elite level and, yeah, I did touch the pinnacles of Premier League, Champions League and international football and there’s a small bit of me that says that I’ve done these things but do I really look at myself as an international, a Premier League player and a Champions League player? The answer’s no. I know I’ve done it and achieved it but I didn’t hit those heights for long enough for me to be able to look back at my career and think that’s what I was.
Saying that though, the highlight of my career is close between the Liverpool and Leverkusen game. My home league debut on New Year's Day in a packed St. James' Park for a win against Liverpool and a home win on a midweek night in the Champions League? Wow, I mean, they’re memories that will stick with me forever."