Tom Oldfield

Sir Alex Ferguson has major defensive concerns at present. With Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic struggling through injury, the United boss knows that a bad patch could seriously damage the club’s title challenge as Chelsea seek to lengthen their advantage. The big fixtures keep on coming, making the run-up to Christmas a crucial period for the champions as they chase a fourth straight Premier League crown.
But fortunately for Ferguson, Wes Brown has chosen the perfect time to return from his spell on the treatment table with an ankle problem. The defender has had terrible luck with injuries throughout his career, dating back to cruciate ligament horrors in 1999, and the champions have been forced to manage without one of their most reliable defenders for large stretches.
And, as a result, it is easy to forget just how solid a performer Brown is. He was a jewel from the club’s youth system and has shown his versatility by starring at both centre-back and right-back, where he started in the 2008 Champions League final. Strong in the tackle, more than capable in the air and a clever man marker, Brown is a multi-talented defender – and Ferguson knows it.
Therefore, the United boss had no hesitation in pairing Brown with Johnny Evans for the pivotal recent clash with Chelsea. The champions were on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline but the deputy centre-backs did an outstanding job and their understanding and composure will allow Ferguson more time to ease Ferdinand and Vidic back from their current injuries. It is the clubs with the greatest strength in depth that tend to stay the course in pursuit of the major prizes and United are well-equipped in that regard.
In a recent interview, Ferguson told the media: “If you take Ferdinand and Vidic out then there aren’t many partnerships in the Premier League better than Brown and Evans.” And having watched Brown at close quarters for more than a decade, the Scot should know.

However, Sir Alex Ferguson is not the only manager relieved to see the defender back to full fitness. England boss Fabio Capello has always shown faith in Brown’s ability and admires his flexibility in playing two positions effectively. In recent friendlies, very few defenders have done enough to book their spot on the plane to South Africa, leaving the door open for Brown to impress. While Liverpool’s Glen Johnson appears odds on to start at right-back, Capello still needs a quality alternative to call upon.
He may have only recently left his injury nightmare behind but Brown must still harbour hopes of travelling to South Africa next summer. Capello certainly wants him there, picking him at right-back against Brazil in Doha, where England suffered a 1-0 defeat. Admittedly, the defender was not at his best that night, making the mistake that handed Brazil a penalty, but the England boss will surely see past that error of judgement.
For a few pundits Brown remains a long shot for the 2010 World Cup but others rightly argue that a fully fit Brown is in the same league as Joleon Lescott or Matthew Upson and might well prove to be a preferable back up to the Ferdinand-Terry axis. Lescott’s form has dipped worryingly since his big money switch to Manchester City while Upson is facing a relegation battle with West Ham. Additionally, and this could be the clincher as far as Capello is concerned, Brown has the flexibility to play at right-back, meaning the Italian can select one player as cover for two positions and open up an extra spot in the squad for a midfielder or striker.
The 30-year-old, who will undoubtedly receive opportunities at right-back as well as centre-back for United this season, told reporters last week: “Do I prefer right-back or centre-back? I think, for me, it’s just important to be out on the pitch. As a youngster I was always a centre-back, but I’ve probably played 50 per cent of my games for United at right-back. As long as I’m out on the pitch, it really doesn’t bother me where I’m playing.”
But before the summer of 2010 rolls around, Brown has plenty on his plate at Old Trafford, where United are still in the hunt for four trophies. There is bound to be some rust to deal with after his injury layoff but he remains an important part of Ferguson’s squad and if he continues to impress then his manager will have some tricky decisions to make when Ferdinand and Vidic return to the fold.
Brown has a big seven months ahead and will hope to be celebrating with his United team-mates come May. And, so long as he brings his A game, he will surely cap a spirited comeback with a seat on the plane to South Africa as Capello’s England seek to bring home the World Cup.

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