When it was revealed that Sol Campbell's hamstring injury was serious enough to keep him out of England's final World Cup qualifier against Greece next month, the almost universal opinion was that this would weaken Sven Goran Eriksson's plans.
However, since his bitter move across north London from Tottenham, Campbell has not been quite the centre-half for Arsenal and England that he was before he decided to quit White Hart Lane. It may be because persistent injury cost him his pre-season or the mental baggage associated with what was seen along the Tottenham High Road as a lucrative piece of treachery, but Campbell has struggled; identified as the one weak link in England's triumph in Munich and unimpressive win against Albania at St James' Park.
Under the circumstances, Wes Brown's superlative display against Lille on Tuesday night could hardly have been better timed. Sir Alex Ferguson is used to talking up his players even when they have under-performed but few at Old Trafford would have quibbled with his comment that Brown's defending had been "perfect".
"I believe Wes is well on the way to becoming the best centre-half in the country," said the Manchester United manager. "He makes mistakes, but all players of 21 do that and it's why I have brought in the experienced Laurent Blanc.
"He will help him recover from his mistakes quickly and give him that little bit more assurance. He will talk to him and guide him because Laurent is an organiser."
On the evidence of Tuesday evening, Brown needed little assistance from the veteran Frenchman. The errors Ferguson mentioned include a tendency to rush in feet-first, which cost United a couple of own-goals last season, but as he proved in a masterly display in the Mestalla in February, when United forced a goalless draw with Valencia, he has the pace and positional sense to make a significant impact at European level. Ferguson remarked that even as a 15-year-old he could "smell danger".
United's opening match of this Champions' League campaign was not one to judge whether the veteran-rookie partnership of Blanc and Brown will be enough to take Ferguson to Glasgow on 15 May. Aside from their first game of last season's competition, a 5-1 thrashing of Anderlecht and a 3-1 revenge over PSV Eindhoven, a side they had hopelessly underestimated in the Netherlands, it is hard to think of any Champions' League game in which they have dismantled their opponents since winning the European Cup two years ago. Bruno Cheyrou and Dagui Bakari had pace and height respectively but they are not of the class of the strikers Manchester United will encounter as the competition wears on. And yet Lille troubled the home side throughout.
Brown was alone equal to the task and there seems no reason to believe he will be found wanting either in La Coruña on Tuesday or at Old Trafford on 6 October should Eriksson choose him to partner Les Ferdinand against Greece. "The only way you can judge young players is how they come through international football," Ferguson commented when asked about Brown's potential last year.
"I don't think you should be throwing plaudits at young players before they have achieved things. Promise is one thing, confirming it is another."
It seemed then like an invitation to England and it still does.Reuse content