Wes Brown: The legend that never was
Clive Tyldesley has lost his voice. Having screamed for 90 minutes, he has nothing but a croak but it’s all worth it, he thinks. It is May 2013, at Wembley and he’s just witnessed one of the great European finals of the modern era – Manchester United; proud recipients of the most desired trophy on the continent. “And Wes Brown holds the trophy aloft!” he bellows, before allowing himself a deep breath. He’s seen it all now. He watches the celebrations and almost runs out of superlatives for this side; and then announces: “And our reporter, Gabriel Clarke, is with the skipper…”
“Wes, simple question, how does it feel?!” and United’s captain forces a chuckle. “Well, I mean, er, it feels great. I’ve been captain for some time now and been very fortunate but this is one of my greatest moments, for sure,” Brown says, nodding. Gabriel then poses another question – this one immediately lights up Brown’s face. He wants to know the secret to his longevity. He laughs. “I’m just fortunate…I play for the biggest club in the world with the best players. And, you know, my fitness has always been great. I think that’s it…that’s my secret, really. I guess I’m just one of the lucky ones.”
Sometimes, great authors use fiction as an outlet for their fantasies; a place where hyperboles and superlatives can live and co-exist without bother. It’s an ideal way to also express feelings and turn hypothetical situations into reality. And that was the objective of the italicised account above – an exaggerated account of Wesley Brown, Manchester United legend*, attempting to imagine a career where he was not prone to injuries.
In Brown, Manchester United had a player who was so obviously talented that you couldn’t, at one point, foresee a future where it all goes wrong; indeed, we witnessed the great (and not-so-great) moments of his early career and tipped the rugged defender for big things. In simple terms, Brown’s tenure at the club was successful in comparison to many others with a mighty 362 appearances to his name; but we know, and so does he, that it could have ended much better.
Back in 2001, Sir Alex Ferguson boldly claimed that Brown “is the best in England”, adding that “he’s better than Sol Campbell, he’s better than Rio Ferdinand, [and] he will be a fantastic player.” And, in fairness, he wasn’t wrong. Brown had talent in abundance and was continuously tipped for and expected to do things even greater than unsettling England’s first choice paring in central defence. But luck was not on his side – knee ligaments, strains and numerous other spells later, he soon faced competition even more stiff than his hamstring.
However, in between the many injuries that had been inflicted on him by the unkind footballing gods, there were moments of magic. He’d often have Man of the Match performances in between the heartbreak and Sir Alex was most definitely his biggest admirer, once dubbing him the “best natural defender in the country.” He was consistently excellent during the 01/02 season and then again during the latter part of 03/04, but was not able to continue that good form in the following season. “My injuries have always stopped me achieving something,” said Brown back in 2004. “It’s always halted my progress for six or eight months at a time.”
Ironically, the setback of Gary Neville was a sort of reprieve in the 07/08 season, where he had helped United to a Euro/League double. It was his cross, of course, which led to Ronaldo’s opener in the Final at Moscow against Chelsea which was eventually decided on penalties. In that game, he was assured and read the game perfectly; finding the balance between defence and attack that other full-backs can only be envious of. “It was a great season,” said Brown a year after. “The team the whole way through the season was flowing and we always thought we were in contention to win trophies. It was a great feeling to be involved in what was a great achievement.” And then again, inevitable happens. In truth, he didn’t quite recover – that glorious season was his last notable campaign of any significance.
This story, unfortunately not fictional, had a depressing pattern. Have a good spell in the first team, then get injured. And that kept happening. Again and again. For all the smiles and jubilation and the winners’ medals, there was something almost anticlimactic about his stop-start career. OPTA found that Wes Brown had averaged 17.8 appearances per campaign in his 13 years at the club. A derisory amount (like his price tag), come to think about it. He deserved to play more.
21 cases of injuries were recorded by physioroom.com between 2002 to 2010; yet, tragically, he has had more before the time frame. While it is very true that injuries are just the norm in football – the article doesn’t dispute that – it is still very clear that it has blighted a good career which could have been so much more joy that it had. Instead, like an amazing firework display, it fizzled out after a while. And now he’s gone, with a legacy left not as great as it really could have been.
*‘United legend’ has connotations of something that has been recognised internally and had Brown’s career not been ravaged by injuries, which is saying a lot I know, he’d have almost certainly be regarded as highly. (The word ‘great’ suggests something decided from a wider consensus and so it must be stressed that this article isn’t particularly saying that, as if he would have become a Paulo Maldini. That debate is for another day…)