Amid the flashing smiles and the laughter from an England manager flushed with the success of his international debut and preparing to face Andorra, there was a sombre, almost mournful tone to Steve McClaren when the name of Wes Brown cropped up in conversation yesterday.
Seven years since making his first England appearance against Hungary, one of the Premiership's most naturally gifted defenders will finally take his cap collection into double figures when the Manchester United centre-half replaces his injured team-mate, Rio Ferdinand, alongside John Terry this evening. It is a cause as much for regret as for celebration.
As McClaren helped to nurture the raw teenager from the tough Longsight area of Manchester as Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant at United in the late 1990s, there is neat symmetry in his decision to include the 26-year-old in his first competitive fixture as England manager at Old Trafford. Theirs is a lengthy and close connection, which began when Brown emerged in the United team during their treble-winning season, but one that has made McClaren privy to the misfortunes that once led Ferguson to describe the defender as having "a tragedy of a career". It is a career that merits occasions like today.
The rich promise that Brown displayed during his debut season at Old Trafford, and which led to his rapid promotion with England, came to an abrupt halt when a ruptured cruciate ligament kept him out of the 1999-2000 campaign. At 19 years of age he had suffered the injury footballers fear most, and four years later his cruciate snapped for a second time. Brown was cut down on the day United secured their last Premiership title in beating Everton and, while the sight of him bouncing up and down on crutches at Goodison Park may have revealed the depth of his passion for his boyhood club, it also sent knee specialists into apoplexy across the land.
By then, Brown could have been forgiven for resigning himself to the fates. In the midst of his cruciate conditions his appearances had been restricted by a broken ankle at the start of the 2002-03 season plus persistent problems with his knee and thigh, and so it is testament to the strength of his character that he is here to win his 10th England cap at all.
Injuries are not solely to blame for his lack of international recognition, however. Brown is unfortunate to occupy a role in which England are blessed but it is his uncomplicated, unfussy - yet highly efficient - style that also encourages his contribution to go unnoticed. Not so by Ferguson and the more seasoned observers at Old Trafford, who saw United produce their most consistent spell of last season when Brown had returned to full fitness after missing the opening 14 games with a thigh injury.
"I worked with Wes when he was a young lad coming through at Manchester United," McClaren said yesterday. "He had great potential, he had everything; good pace, read the game well, could use the ball, had good movement and was aggressive. But injuries have curtailed his career. At the end of last season, though, his performances were excellent and he has started this season very well, too. I had no hesitation in including him. He has the right temperament and the right character for international football."
As McClaren said, a career has been curtailed. Against the odds, it is far from being completed.Reuse content