Brown hopes for silver end to season

After three injury-scarred seasons, Wes Brown tells Tim Rich he is back in the United side to stay
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"It's all changed now. It was just after I finished that apprentices stopped having to clean players' boots. They get away with it these days; know what I mean? The kit man does it now."

"It's all changed now. It was just after I finished that apprentices stopped having to clean players' boots. They get away with it these days; know what I mean? The kit man does it now."

The sentiments of a different era, you can almost smell the dubbin, feel the leather football. Soon, he'll be talking about how they kept fit by running up and down the terraces with a team-mate on their back; just like Denis Compton did at Highbury.

Wes Brown is 24 years old. He was the last of the apprentices at Manchester United to have to act as kind of fag to Old Trafford's senior footballers. The boots Brown polished were special, the ones that provided the only memorable moment of the 1996 FA Cup final - if you discount the white suits Liverpool decided to parade in. They took a half-cleared corner from David Beckham and drove it back past David James. They belonged to Eric Cantona.

"What was he like? Well, there was his presence for one thing. Have you ever met him? He is really intense, such a legend, and I was still a fan like everyone else. I never used to speak to him unless I was spoken to," Brown reflected as he made his last preparations for this afternoon's FA Cup final.

"I remember the first time I walked into the first-team dressing-room, I was shitting it. Because I was doing Eric Cantona's boots I used to see him every morning and have a chat with him now and again. It wouldn't be a long one but it would keep you going.

"Then, suddenly, you are in the first team. You don't say anything but slowly you find your way around. I was 18 when I made my debut, against Leeds, my first full season was the one when we did the Treble and I had my fair share of games. Up until the quarter-finals [of the European Cup] I found myself playing against Barcelona and Bayern Munich. It really hasn't sunk in even now."

Manchester United was a tough, uncompromising school: "Gary Pallister had moved on to Middlesbrough but big Jaap Stam came in and with [Peter] Schmeichel shouting at you, it certainly helped you grow up. Stam was just a big, strong defender; you watched what he did and picked things up. Laurent Blanc was especially good for that. People used to hammer him for his lack of pace but, technically, he was unbelievable. His positioning and heading of the ball were all beautiful."

Brown has three championship and a European Cup winners' medal and, if everything goes according to form against Millwall, he will have a fifth, delivered like all the rest into the safe care of his grandmother, Hilda Kemp. His brother, Reece, 12 years old and a central defender at United's academy, will be in Cardiff. He might not have to clean his brother's boots, but the expectations on him, following someone Sir Alex Ferguson called: "the most naturally-gifted defender in the country", must be enormous.

"He tells me that he gets the obvious stick," said Wes. "He's told: 'Your brother's rubbish' and sometimes he might think there's pressure on his shoulders, but he's a confident lad. He's doing all right, I mean, I wasn't in a team at 12."

There have, however, been three hateful injuries to go with the four medals. Two wrecked cruciate knee ligaments and, in between, a fractured ankle. They cost respectively, the entire 1999-2000 season, plus the European Championship that followed; the first three months of the 2002-03 season; and now the first half of this campaign and, realistically, another European Championship.

"I didn't expect to go to Portugal," he admitted. "I am not playing consistently and, at the beginning, I wasn't playing well ... Also, I've only being playing for three months and that's nowhere near the fitness required for such a big tournament."

Recovering from the first cruciate injury took a year. Brown was four months into his rehabilitation from the second when, in September, Rio Ferdinand missed a routine drugs test. Three months later, the eight-month ban arrived and Brown's programme was accelerated. When, on 17 January at Molineux, England's most expensive footballer appeared in a United shirt for the last time, it was Brown who substituted him.

To those in the stands, it must have seemed a seamless transition, one high-class international replacing another. The reality, as Brown knew, was that he had been rushed back far too soon and was not ready for what was to follow.

"I was gutted for Rio because it was a stupid ban but then I knew I had to work harder on my fitness and it was all too quick," he said. "Had it not been for Rio, I don't think the gaffer would ever have put me back in then. It didn't go too well. I knew I wasn't 100 per cent. I came on against Wolves and I slipped for their goal. For a good while, I didn't perform as I'd like. If you go on to a pitch and you've been out for so long and the first couple of touches aren't good, it all comes crowding in. I didn't get my touch back for four or five matches."

Curiously, it began to return during United's defeat to Porto in the second round of the Champions' League. By the time they played Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final, Brown was fully trusting his own game.

He said he never allowed fear to intrude into his recovery in the days when he was alone in the gym, riding a bike around Carrington, or in the early days, simply stretched out, barely able to move. "People always asked me if I was afraid but I never was. Roy Keane had had a similar injury and the first time he was great to me. The second time I knew what I had to do myself. People were saying I might never come back but I kept my head up. All my family were supportive because for the first two months you can't do much for yourself, you just sit there and depend on others."

Brown has one year left on his contract. Ferguson will not let him go but with Ferdinand due back in September and Mikaël Silvestre still a commanding presence in central defence, opportunities might be limited. Did he ever imagine a life outside Old Trafford? "It's different for people who are not from the area. If you came from Newcastle, you might say it was OK to leave but I'm a local lad. I don't want to go anywhere."

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