The Strange Case Of Richard Brittain
By Gerry Smith
Dingwall and Perth, Scotland. One a sleepy former livestock town in Ross & Cromarty. No more than a place name on a road sign these days. Ever since a bypass, and the Cromarty Bridge, was built either side of the town, killing stone dead any passing trade.
The other by contrast, is a large, lively, town in the Central Belt, proud called a city by its inhabitants, but overshadowed by its near neighbours Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Neither have been, or are, renowned as hotbeds of football. Crowds struggle to make 4,000, and media coverage is normally confined to page fillers, after the Glasgow and Edinburgh clubs have had their fill.
Not now though. For months, a disagreement rather than full blown row has rumbled on betweeen these clubs. And now the consequences of its conclusion could have far-reaching repercussions on the transfer market across the globe. Think of it in terms of 'Bosman Mild'.
In the summer of 2008, midfielder Richard Brittain had been released by St. Mirren after an undistinguished spell at Paisley. Ross County, newly promoted to the Scottish First Division, were in dire need of squad strengthening.
It almost became a match made in heaven. Under the guidance of Derek Adams, the Staggies were transformed into one of Scotland's most admired clubs. At a stunned Hampden in 2010, Ross County famously humiliated Celtic 2-0 in a remarkable Scottish Cup semi-final.
Brittain that day was outstanding. He embarrassed opposite number Landry N'Guemo so comprehensively that Celtic boss Neil Lennon was forced into substituting his tormented midfielder before the half time break. It was a remarkable performance.
With Richard installed as captain, County went from strength to strength. The Challenge Cup was seized the following season, then in 2011-12, the Staggies incredibly went over eight months unbeaten in the league. They stormed to the First Division title, their one and only league defeat being just a week into it.
The SPL was still a huge step up, though, and Adams strengthened his squad considerably. Richard Brittain, however, wasn't going anywhere, keeping the captain's armband.
County's faith in him was rewarded. Richard scored 10 times, with Celtic again having cause to regret his thunderbolt free kicks. The Staggies ended their inaugural SPL season in a hugely impressive 5th.
St. Johnstone, meanwhile, were going about things with less fanfare, but no less remarkably. They quietly consolidated their Scottish Premier League status, made a Scottish Cup semi-final appearance in 2011, then last year qualified for the Europa League.
Outside of Celtic, with the new Rangers club operating as a Third Division outfit, manager Steve Lomas and the club became an attractive proposition. Heads were being turned in the direction of McDiarmid Park. Including Richard Brittain's.
At the start of the year, the Victoria Park club confirmed Brittain had signed a pre-contract agreement to join the Saints from the start of 2013-14. The Dingwall faithful were heartbroken seeing another club legend depart.
Feelings in Perth were somewhat different. In the running for a Europa League place again, which they achieved with a 3rd placed finish, the squad was being shrewdly strengthened for net season way before the current one ended. It looked to be good times were ahead for the Saints - and for Brittain.
But as winter made way for spring, it all began to unravel. The midfielder had changed his mind and wanted to stay north. County chairman Roy McGregor revealed why. "He has family difficulties and he needs, with honesty and integrity, to go and speak to (manager) Steve Lomas and St. Johnstone."
McGregor insisted he or County couldn't get involved at this stage. St. Johnstone counterpart Steve Brown, however, responded with "We would expect him to honour the original agreement which he has signed. Let's be clear; he has only requested that we cancel the agreement and has not said he wil not fulfill it."
Echoing the views possibly of the football world, Brown continued "This is not just an issue concerning St. Johnstone. If we were to allow Richard to break his agreement, every club in Scotland would be affected."
Not just Scotland, either, though. April came and went, as did the end of the season, with still no resolution in sight. St. Johnstone had a signed agreement. Richard Brittain had pressing family issues. The immovable object was meeting the irreistible force.
As June arrived, with both parties seemingly intractable, it became increasingly hostile. The SPL and SFA intervened, but Brown saw it as "almost a deliberate ploy to stop him playing for St. Johnstone." A strange thing to say as it was St. Johnstone who had requested the intervention.
Pre-season training, and for the Saints a Europa League campaign, was just around the corner. County up the ante. Brittain was signed with the Scottish Premier League as a St. Johnstone player. The Dingwall club promptly registered him with the SFA.
SPL rules stipulated a player must be registered with both bodies for the same club before he can play SPL games. It was a sly, if perhaps underhand, move. This now had to be sorted one way or the other.
Eventually, despite having done no wrong in any of this, St. Jonstone grudgingly conceded, after Brittain didn't show for pre-season training, that he wasn't going to be a Saints player. The chairmen, despite Roy McGregor's earlier neutrality, met up, and amicably agreed that Richard Brittain would again be a Ross County player.
In the end, despite media reports, no compensation or transfer fee was given to St. Johnstone, already reeling by the departure of their talented manager to Millwall. Instead, McGregor made a donation to the Saints community programme.
New McDiarmid Park boss Tommy Wright wryly commented "The issue is now much wider than Richie Brittain and St. Johnstone. The whole future of pre-contracts is under scrutiny here."
Wright will never say a truer word. Since the Bosman ruling the balance of power in the game has shifted irrevocably towards the player - and his agent. Now we have a situation where a player, albeit after a lengthy delay, has simply walked away from a signed contract.
The connotations of this are obvious. Players could now, conceivably, sign pre-contract agreements purely to use as a negotiating tool to get a pay rise from their current club. Theory it may only be at the moment. But don't be in any doubt that players, agents, FA's and lawyers the world other will be looking on this as a possible precedent.
Let's not forget, however, that the ones that have suffered more than any other in this, are not St. Johnstone, or even their dumped on supporters, but the real people behind Richard Brittain. His family, the very reason cited for his change of mind. DIanne, in particular, was unhappy at how things transpired.
"Given that nobody knows the exact details of the situation please try not to be so judgmental. A job situation can be difficult for any family and football is no different. There are genuine personal reasons here and nobody wanted the situation played out in the media, least of all our family (a lot of which of nonsense)."
One way or another, long after he has retired, long after clubs and supporters' anger has subsided, long after his family has been left in peace, the curious case of Richard Brittain could, and probaby will, be remembered in football the world over for a long, long time.