Role players who feature for perennial contenders often do not receive their just due. Our obsession with superstars has conditioned us to think of these players as mere passengers who were launched to the promised land by the “big names”. Wesley Brown is one amongst many Red Devils from their era of dominance who might be forgotten a little too prematurely. It would not matter to him since 5 League titles, a couple of Champions Leagues, and a slew of domestic cups should be comforting. A deep dive into his time at Manchester United would suggest that his influence on all those titles were far greater than that of what you would expect from a serviceable backup defender.
Despite multiple unfortunate injuries, he spent 14 glorious years with the Manchester United senior team, of which he was a significant piece in their astute defense for at least 10 of them. Having taken up football due to his shortcomings in Shotokan Karate, Wes Brown has lived up to the hype of being a two-time Jimmy Murphy award (Young player of the year)- only the second United youth product to do so since Ryan Giggs.
Wes Brown got his first runout in a dead rubber league game after Arsenal secured the title in 1998. He made an impact on Sir Alex Ferguson sufficient to give him his first full season the very next campaign to play second fiddle to Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen. This season was momentous as he witnessed the pinnacle of club football instantly with Manchester United conquering the holy treble in 98/99. He must have backed himself to build on that success, but a devastating injury forced him out of the entirety of the next season. Typically, it is highly unlikely for a young player to return from a serious injury and hit the ground running. Brown did not just do that, but shattered the glass ceiling in the 00/01 season, forming a menacing center-half partnership with Jaap Stam making them the stingiest defense of the season and picking up another league title. His consistent performances did not go unnoticed as Brown was named into the PFA Team of the Year beating out the likes of Tony Adams, Martin Keown, and Jamie Carragher.
Brown remained consistent in the oncoming years but could not cement himself as a mainstay in the starting XI due to a combination of inopportune injuries and the continuous influx of world-class talent which included the likes of Stam, Silvestre, Blanc, Ferdinand, and Vidic. In spite of this, Brown was able to hold his own whenever asked to deputize for the big names and even began to feature as a right-back with increasing regularity, such was his defensive soundness. This only went to reaffirm the proclamation by Sir Alex Ferguson that Brown was the most talented out-and-out defender in their squad.
Brown’s flexibility was an invaluable asset to SAF having used him as both a left and right-sided center-back and also as a right-back according to the situation that the team found themselves in. His ability to seamlessly adapt was a necessity for the team due to the fact that both Ferdinand and Vidic were prone to recurring minor injuries that kept them out for short periods of the season. Brown was not nearly as talented as either of them but he would slot in to do his job with supreme efficiency to become a crucial part of the team’s success in the 2000s. By the 07/08 season, he made the right-back spot his own starting nearly 50 games that year as Manchester United went on to conquer yet another Champions League and Premier League title. Wes Brown made his stamp on the Champions League final against Chelsea, delivering the assist for their only goal of the night.
Injuries and the emergence of young players such as Rafael and Smalling meant that his time at Manchester United was coming to a close. Brown did go on to have a decent run at Sunderland before having brief stints with Blackburn Rovers and Kerala Blasters as father time had finally caught up with the once starry-eyed 16-year-old who went pro. Years after retirement, when asked of his best attribute, Wes Brown had a simple answer – defending. His greatest pleasures came from making tackles, smashing clearances, and winning aerial duels. He was part of the best defense of the league three times, averaging 27 starts in those seasons. To put this in context, the likes of Ferdinand and Vidic have also featured in the best defense 3 times apiece, averaging 28.67 and 29.67 starts respectively. This does not indicate that Brown belongs in the same tier as Ferdinand or Vidic but shows that his relevance to the golden era of Manchester United is grossly understated.
Wes Brown has always been a consummate professional throughout his time as a Red Devil, constantly fighting through adversity with unnerving reliability and flexibility. Yes, he amassed a ton of silverware by virtue of playing for Manchester United in its glory days but for him to perform at the highest level for as long as he did, Wes Brown was more than just a mere passenger.
Written by Pavan Pillai | Feature Image by Clive Brunskill /Allsport
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