AS SUPER LEAGUE INITIATIONS GO, Kevin Brown’s in the 2003 Good Friday derby was as tough as they come. Wigan, forced to blood several youngsters with nine players missing through injury, were staring down the barrel of a fourth straight defeat when Stuart Raper put Jon Whittle out of his misery and gave Brown his opportunity on the wing.
He’d already had a taste of first-team Rugby League in Denis Betts’ testimonial but coming on in the heat of a battle with bitter rivals St Helens at a packed-out JJB Stadium was a different proposition altogether.
The nerveless 18-year-old delivered a performance full of energy and enthusiasm to help the young Warriors overturn a 22-12 half-time deficit and claim a famous derby victory.
Sky Sports pundit Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson was so impressed that he dug deep to reward Brown.
“No-one had given us a chance,” Brown told RLW.
“There were five or six of us on debut and somehow we managed to beat them.
“I came on at half-time and because I looked that skinny and out of place I think he was surprised I wasn’t as bad as he thought.
“I definitely wasn’t the best player on the field but he got me a watch, true to his word.
“Beating a Saints side with the likes of [Paul] Sculthorpe and [Sean] Long was probably one of the best ever debuts — you couldn’t write it.
“That feeling you get when you go out for your debut is just surreal. Everything goes so fast and you do things wrong, but you couldn’t try any harder. It was sold out so the adrenaline and all that was just amazing.
“I was really grateful Stuart Raper picked me, but he probably had no-one else to put in!”
But for his love of Wigan, Brown could have been playing for hometown club St Helens that day, although there were times when he wondered if he’d ever get scouted.
He was 11 when his attention was turned away from judo, football and union and towards league.
“There was an advert in the St Helens paper that there were a few Saints players going down to one of the local amateur Rugby League sides so I thought I’d give it a go and see what Rugby League was,” Brown reflected.
“As soon as I started playing I loved it and that’s all I thought about.”
Brown found his home at half-back playing for local clubs Pilkington Recs, Blackbrook Royals and Thatto Heath Crusaders, but the slender youngster struggled to impress scouts.
“When you’re 10 years old you think these scouts are geniuses but they just write you off without a second guess,” he said.
“They just say, ‘he’s not big enough’, ‘he’s not quick enough’ or ‘he’s not tough enough’.
“You hear it all and it’s rubbish when you’re talking about kids at that age.
“No-one has got a crystal ball.
“The way I see it, the majority of the lads who are just hard working, keen and really love it are the ones who go further regardless of size, speed, strength or courage. I think that’s one of the main reasons why I got where I am.
“No-one really took an interest until after my 15th birthday. Half of my team-mates at junior clubs and a couple of mates who I went to school with had signed for Salford, Saints and Wigan.
“I was determined to get scouted but I was just happy to be going playing with my mates on a Sunday.
“Then Saints and Wigan both wanted me at the same time. I was a massive Wigan fan and used to go all the time to the games at Central Park so it didn’t really matter about money — I don’t even know what I got paid or anything; I just signed it so I could go play for them.”
Brown admitted he “was surprised how easy it was” when he made the step up to academy level, where he played alongside the likes of Sean O’Loughlin and brother-in-law Gareth Hock.
“It was under-18s when I was there and I started at 16 so the lads were bigger,” he explained.
“But I’d never relied on size and it was just the same in the academy.
“I loved it; just putting on a Wigan shirt made me feel like I could do anything.”
Brown’s form in 2002 saw him called up by England Academy for a two-Test series against an Australian Schoolboys outfit featuring Ashton Sims and Tim Smith.
“It wasn’t my age group and I didn’t really expect to get picked for it,” Brown said.
“I was playing quite well for the academy at the time but was pretty shocked to get called up; it was all pretty surreal.
“They all said they’d never beaten the Aussies before so it was really good to be part of that.”
Wigan were forced to accelerate Brown’s development but could find no place for him in their 2003 Grand Final squad, although that came as no surprise to the player himself.
“I understood my role,” he said.
“I had a good run — played about 10 games and got a fair few tries — but I realised I was nowhere near ready to play week in, week out.
“It was something I expected.
“I was a typical young lad who didn’t really know much about the game, especially playing with some of the personalities like Andy Farrell, Kris Radlinski, Terry Newton and Adrian Lam.
“Everyone asks me who’s the best player I’ve played with and I don’t even have to think about it — it’s Andy Farrell. He gave everyone so much confidence and was very skilful.”
Two of Brown’s appearances in his debut season were in come-from-behind wins against St Helens and he was treated to another derby blockbuster in May 2004, this time in the Challenge Cup final.
“It was unbelievable and a surreal experience,” he enthused.
“I probably got a little bit spoiled, to be honest. My debut was a sold-out derby and it was sold out at Cardiff, Wigan v Saints again.
“I thought it was the norm.
“I absolutely loved the experience but probably didn’t appreciate what I was getting so early on in my career.”
Brown was brought back down to earth after breaking his leg against Wakefield the following weekend and there was more despair to come as the Warriors endured a horror month in June 2005.
After losing to both London and Hull FC at home, Wigan were hammered 70-0 and 75-0 by Leeds and Saints respectively.
“You can clearly see what happened that season,” Brown explained.
“Our experienced players retired all at once.
“I went from a young lad getting bossed about every week to being one of the older players at still a very, very young age.
“Getting battered by Leeds and Saints is the lowest point of my career. I’ve never been in a team that threw the towel in like that two weeks on the bounce.
“We got embarrassed and it was tough to take. But I learned a lot from that.”
Wigan had a disastrous start to the 2006 campaign and Brown found himself surplus to requirements as Brian Noble looked to stamp his authority on the squad.
He joined Huddersfield on loan before making the move permanent.
“It wasn’t my decision; if it was, I’d have stayed,” Brown admitted.
“I thought Huddersfield was a step backwards and I looked at it as a step closer to my career being over. I really didn’t want to go but I had no choice — Brian Noble made it clear that he didn’t want me at Wigan.
“But when I got to Huddersfield I had a lot of good mates, started enjoying my rugby and playing well.
“I absolutely loved every minute of my time at Huddersfield.
“It was the best thing that happened to me and part of the reason why I ended up being a decent player. I needed to go away and learn how to play at stand-off.”
Brown’s opportunity to nail down that position came after a conversation with then-Giants coach Jon Sharp, who decided to move captain Chris Thorman to full-back.
“He rang me up and said, ‘I think you’re the best six here and I want you to be our stand-off next year’,” said Brown.
“Tony Smith picked me in his Great Britain squad and things started moving forward from there.
“Stand-off suits my skill set: I’m not slow but I’m not the fastest player; I believe I can read the game well, have good hands and a good kicking game.”
Huddersfield struggled to make an impact in Super League early in Brown’s spell but their fortunes improved under Nathan Brown, who led the club to a third-place finish and a Challenge Cup final against Warrington during his first season in 2009.
“Playing at Wembley was unreal,” said the younger Brown.
“We really expected to win that day — I feel like we had the best coach in the league at the time and we had Brett Hodgson who was playing fantastic.
“But unfortunately I got injured after about 10 minutes and was out for the year after that.
“It was a really poor ending to what looked like it was going to be a fantastic end of the year for us.”
After more near misses for Huddersfield, Brown was appointed captain in 2011.
But little over a year later it was announced that he would be leaving for Widnes.
“I’d just had a little boy and it had taken seven years to make that happen through surrogacy,” he said.
“Once that happened we wanted to move back home.
“A couple of clubs came in for me from back home but I spoke to Denis Betts and Steve O’Connor and they really interested me with the journey they said I’d be a part of.
“Everything they said has happened so it’s been a really good move for me.
“I see massive potential in the club.”
Brown’s last match for Huddersfield was their Challenge Cup semi-final defeat to Warrington and there was more last-four heartache for the playmaker in 2014 as Widnes were beaten by Castleford.
“We got turned over quite convincingly which was really disappointing,” Brown said.
“We felt like we could do something special and get to Wembley.
“It was very similar to Huddersfield in that not many lads had been to finals or semi-finals.
“The experience we got from that was invaluable.”
Brown ended last season in the Super League Dream Team — an accolade he says he’s “immensely proud of” — but he reckons he’s played his best rugby in 2015.
“I’ve not played as many games but stats-wise I’m a lot better this year than I was last year, with the amount of tries I’ve created and scored,” the Vikings captain continued.
“I feel like my best rugby has been played at Widnes and hopefully that will carry on.”
Despite his form over the past two seasons, and England’s struggles to find a top class half-back partnership, it appears unlikely Brown will be in Steve McNamara’s squad for the three-Test series against New Zealand.
“I understand it’s his decision and he has a good team to pick from, but it’s frustrating and disappointing not being able to play international rugby when I’m at the peak of my game,” said Brown, who revealed he hasn’t spoken to McNamara since earning the last of his three caps in the Four Nations five years ago.
“I loved every minute when I played for England but I feel like I’m a much better player now than I was in 2010.
“I just wish I could have a crack at that elite level.
“I don’t really worry about it that much because it’s happened that many times.
“I’m hoping he does ring but I’m certainly not expecting a call.”
As for the rest of his club career, Brown said: “I’d be more than happy to finish at Widnes.
“I’ve signed again for another three years after this and if I get to play every year at the club I’ll be a happy man.”