Brown's strong case for the England defence

Euro 2004: Fergie doesn't want his fragile hero to go to Portugal - but Eriksson is being urged to heed other voices
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Sven Goran Eriksson has given the clearest indication yet of the four central defenders he wants to take to Euro 2004. "As we do not have Rio Ferdinand, players like Sol Campbell, [Gareth] Southgate, [Jonathan] Woodgate and [John] Terry are very important players for us," the England coach disclosed on Thursday.

Sven Goran Eriksson has given the clearest indication yet of the four central defenders he wants to take to Euro 2004. "As we do not have Rio Ferdinand, players like Sol Campbell, [Gareth] Southgate, [Jonathan] Woodgate and [John] Terry are very important players for us," the England coach disclosed on Thursday.

But there is one major problem. Southgate is injured. Damaged medial ligaments in his right knee mean the 33-year-old is unlikely to play again this season, and despite the optimistic lobbying from his manager at Middlesbrough, and Eriksson's former assistant, Steve McClaren, taking him to Portugal would be an undoubted risk. And risks - as Chelsea can testify - are not something Eriksson is comfortable with.

Enter Wes Brown. If the craft of defending is timing, then the Manchester United player may have just picked his moment as cleanly as the tackles he executed in his man-of-the-match performances against Arsenal which confirmed that his latest prolonged rehabilitation was over.

For Brown, still just 24, is a formidable player, a formidable character, in that he is, it is believed, the only professional footballer to recover from rupturing the cruciate ligaments in both knees (plus the medial ligaments in one knee and breaking an ankle). Injury has stolen more than two years from his career. His manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is unequivocal, believing adversity has rapidly matured the local lad he once hailed as the most naturally gifted defender he had encountered.

Ferguson is also protective. Speaking ahead of yesterday's match against Birmingham City, he dismissed talk of an England call-up. "The boy is maybe going to need a break during the summer after going through what he has been through," he said. However, even Ferguson conceded: "The nice thing is that people are talking about him that way."

Such was, and is, his faith in Brown that Ferguson initially balked at buying Ferdinand, believing his own man was a better prospect (eventually it was Brown who helped persuade Ferdinand, while the two holidayed together in Las Vegas after the 2002 World Cup, to join United). But for injury, Ferguson may well have been right. In one of football's ironies, of course, Ferguson considered buying Southgate during the transfer window after Ferdinand's suspension. If he had done so it would have slowed, probably correctly, Brown's return. It's a curious triangle of "what ifs".

Brown himself is pessimistic about gatecrashing Euro 2004 in the way he forced himself into the squad for Korea and Japan only to produce a horror display, at right-back, on Jeju Island in one of the warm-up matches that led to his omission from the team. "I hit a bad patch coming back so I don't know about Portugal," he said of the games immediately after his return in January in which United turned from the meanest to the most mocked defence in the Premiership.

"I haven't been in touch with Sven Goran Eriksson and he hasn't called me. My last two games have been good and I have been working hard to get back to that level. But I know that two good games is not enough to get me in the squad." He may well be right - after yesterday he has just eight games left, including the FA Cup final, to impress.

But his admirers are legion. Most passionate is the former Liverpool and Scotland defender, and BBC pundit, Alan Hansen, who believes Brown's re-emergence warrants his inclusion in the England team, never mind the squad. "If he stays fit, and his biggest problem has always been that he is susceptible to injury, and keeps playing the way he is, it is conceivable he could go straight in," Hansen says. "If you study Brown's attributes as a centre-back, such as ability in the air, tackling, pace, positional sense and ability on the ball, he's ahead of most of them."

Hansen concedes, as do most observers, that Chelsea's impressive, assertive John Terry is in "pole position". "Terry is a fantastic player and has had a great season. He will do a job wherever and whenever you play him, but the one thing he does lack is that extra bit of pace," Hansen says. And that is what Brown possesses. Tony Adams, the former Arsenal and England defender, does not agree. His conviction that Terry - his natural successor - and Campbell are the best pairing was confirmed by the display of both men in last week's bruising but brilliant Champions' League quarter-final.

What is also illuminating is the opinion of two French internationals likely to face England this summer. One, Mikaël Silvestre, is Brown's clubmate. But his judgement should not be dismissed. "When you look at all the defenders in the English game, then Wes would be the one who has to go to the European Championship," he says. "It was never going to be easy for him to come back from that kind of injury but he is young and now he is back to his best."

Arsenal's Thierry Henry agrees and - interestingly - omits Woodgate from the equation. "In England people look for problems, but you have John Terry, Wes Brown, Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand when he is available, so you are not doing badly," he says.

If Brown is to force himself in, he will have to do it with a touch more fortune. There are no more internationals before 17 May - when the provisional squad is announced - and Brown earned the last of his seven caps in the disastrous friendly against Australia 14 months ago. Also in line areMatthew Upson - his manager, Steve Bruce, insists he remains a better bet - and the Tottenham pair of Anthony Gardner and Ledley King.

On ability there is no contest. Tradition dictates that a couple of players make a late case for inclusion. Ferguson, despite his misgivings, may agree. "He [Brown] has had an unfortunate career," he said after last weekend's FA Cup semi-final. "And if you wish anyone any luck then it should be him." It may well be that, this time, Brown's luck is in.