WES BROWN will return to Old Trafford this evening hoping to show his struggling former club, Manchester United, what they are missing. The 34-year-old has returned from injury as good as ever, and as Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson discovers, his manager is hoping he carries on into his forties
AS he attempts to plug the defensive gap left by Nemanja Vidic’s dismissal in last weekend’s defeat to Chelsea, how David Moyes must wish he could turn to a commanding centre-half, oozing experience and authority, whose background is steeped in the traditions of Manchester United.
Come tomorrow night, and the second leg of United’s Capital One Cup semi-final, two such players will be on display. The only problem for Moyes is that they will both be playing for Sunderland.
John O’Shea will be leading the Black Cats as they attempt to defend the one-goal advantage they secured in the opening game on Wearside, and alongside him at the heart of the back four will be a player whose personal renaissance is even more remarkable than the collective rebirth Sunderland have enjoyed under Gustavo Poyet.
This time last season, Wes Brown’s career appeared to be over. Even at the start of the current campaign, there was no guarantee the 34-year-old would recover from the multiple injuries that threatened to permanently leave him on the sidelines.
Yet as he prepares to line up against his former team-mates tomorrow, Brown is a player reborn. Since returning to action at the start of November, he has produced some of the best performances of his career.
He will be 36 by the time his current contract expires in the summer of 2015, but his manager, Gustavo Poyet, sees no reason why that should mark the end of his time with the Black Cats. Just as Ryan Giggs has continued playing into his forties, so Brown has been challenged to resist the ravages of time.
“I would say that if we keep playing the way we are playing, Wes could play with us until he is 40,” said Poyet. “He has a way of playing now – there is an understanding of the shape, how high up you play, plenty of things that influence the game.
“When you are so ahead of the game, if you keep yourself normally fit, you can go on. Does he want to play until he’s 40? I don’t know, but maybe he will. We’ve got people like Kevin Phillips doing that now, and Wes is capable.
“By the time you get to the age of 27 or 28, you should know everything. If you don’t, you are not good enough. From then on, you just play with the mind, with cleverness and intelligence. Often, it’s the best time when you’re over 30 because you become smart.”
There were times last season when it was feared Brown would never play again as he battled against a succession of injuries that took a considerable toll on his body.
Having been struck down with knee pain after playing in an FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough in January 2012, he went on to suffer serious calf and shin problems that were related to the initial injury.
A number of proposed comebacks had to be aborted when the injury issues flared up, but the defender was finally given the green light to return to full training last autumn.
His first-team return came in strange circumstances at Hull, with the dismissal of both Lee Cattermole and Andrea Dossena forcing Poyet to turn to him earlier than he would have liked, but he has made 13 starts since, with his only absences the result of a sending off against Norwich.
At no stage has Poyet been forced to rest him, and unlike other players with chronic fitness issues, such as Middlesbrough defender Jonathan Woodgate, Brown does not have a specially-tailored training regime.
“If he was not training, like Ledley King, then that would be an issue,” said Poyet. “You never know how much longer he’s going to play because if the body does too much, he might break down. But he is training every day.
“It’s not like he’s training once a week and then playing at the weekend. He trains all the time – yesterday, today, tomorrow. It’s not like there’s anything really bad we have to look out for, although he’s been out for two years so we are not that stupid not to look out for him.”
But does Brown himself not argue for a reduced workload in order to extend his playing days as long as possible? Not exactly. After an absence of almost two years, the defender has already seen more than enough of the sidelines.
“I’ve asked him a few times, ‘Are you playing too many games?’” said Poyet. “He always says, ‘No, I want to play’. He missed so much that he doesn’t want to miss one game just because he’s already played two in a week. He just says, ‘Oh come on, let me play’.
“Maybe his suspension helped us because that might have been the rest that he needed, but he’s been great. It’s difficult to say who’s made the biggest difference (in Sunderland’s improvement), but he’s definitely played a big, big part.”