It's little wonder Michael Brown admits that neither his girlfriend nor his parents have a clue what to buy him for his 27th birthday today. "I think I'm quite easy," he says in a northern accent mixed from the east to the west coast. "But it'll probably be socks and stuff like that - what can you do? If I'm honest I guess it's because I like to pick my own things."
Surprises don't figure. Tottenham Hotspur's latest signing has had enough of those in a career which has, quite literally, careered. He began one season playing international football alongside David Beckham at the Toulon tournament - as an England Under-21 - and ended it on loan at his home-town club, Hartlepool United, who were then the League's second-worst team. In his six years at Manchester City he was sent off five minutes into his debut, played under eight managers - from the Premiership to the Second Division and almost back again - and then there were his cup exploits and 22 goals last season with Neil Warnock's rampant Sheffield United. Naturally anecdotes trip from his tongue (including one involving Michael Tonge).
Take today's FA Cup fourth-round encounter. "My first cup-tie [for Tottenham] and it's against Manchester City. That adds extra spice," he says. "Having lived there so long, I've got a lot of friends who are City fans. I've spoken to a few - but they're not wishing me all the best."
Brown still meets up with players such as Danny Tiatto, Nicky Weaver and Gerard Wiekens, although, under the Keegan revolution, few remain. Another link will soon be severed. Brown still lives in Cheadle, just 10 minutes from City's new ground - "I've driven past the stadium but not been in it yet" - having retained his home there even though he played in Sheffield for four years. Finally he is moving. "It's a priority," he says. "I found somewhere quite quickly and hopefully that will come through this week." Living in a hotel near Tottenham's training ground in Chigwell, Essex, as he has done for the past few weeks after his £500,000 move, does not suit. "It's nice for the first few days but you need somewhere, not least in the afternoons, a base to go back to," Brown says.
It also didn't help that the midfielder arrived with his new club in the bottom three and him banned following a dismissal picked up while at Bramall Lane. "It was difficult, but it helped in some ways that I got to know people before I played," he explains. "At Sheffield I wasn't really allowed to join in as I could not do any contact, because I was waiting for the move on 1 January."
His assured debut came in last week's victory against Liverpool: "It felt like I'd waited so long just to get the shirt on." Brown detects a change in the brief time he has been at Spurs - and traces it to the Cup win over Crystal Palace. "The players have had a lot of things on their minds lately," he says. "I think the Palace game was a good distraction. Being the Cup, they just thought, 'Let's have a go at this'. But I think it then gave people the confidence to go on from there."
It's a syndrome he spotted last season at Sheffield United when they reached the semi-finals of both cup competitions. "We just went out believing we were going to win and that helped me," he says. "When we were playing Premiership clubs we just knew we were going to score."
In the end, the backlog of League games caught up on them, with an embarrassingly easy defeat ("over in 40 minutes") in the First Division play-off final. "It was a lot of games and everyone said it was one game too many," Brown says.
Indeed, Warnock took a typically unique approach to the FA Cup. "It was strange. We played Ipswich in the same round on my birthday last year and, because we were in the semis already of the Worthington Cup, he came in and said, 'Right, five changes. I want to get knocked out. We could do with that'," Brown explains. "But it was a fantastic game - 4-3. That's how it all started, and we went on again. But he didn't want the Cup to get in the way of the League."
The victory - in which he scored twice - was sugared by the fact that the opposing manager was Joe Royle, who discarded him at Maine Road midway through 1999-2000 after City had won promotion from the Second Division. Brown had been the Player of the Year.
City were in the Premiership when he made his debut, however. That was in 1995, against Queen's Park Rangers. "Seventeen," Brown says. "I think I pulled Andrew Impey's shirt and the ref said he was directly through on goal. I had come on as sub, so it was the best five minutes and the worst five minutes. Straight red."
The next day he had a call from City's manager, Alan Ball. "He said, 'Forget what you did, I think you did well and set an example by pure enthusiasm'." He stayed in the side. "It was difficult, but I was living on a high really - I couldn't have enjoyed it more. And we got relegated. Looking at it that way, it was bizarre: so many changes, so many managers."
There will be another, of course, to get used to at Spurs this summer. It doesn't faze him. "I've always known the history of Tottenham and I just looked at the squad and thought, 'There's some great players here'. They've not been performing as well as everyone would like but the club has got good backers," Brown says.
Although no youthful prospect, he fits a profile being admirably built under the director of football, David Pleat. He has a hunger - as do other former Nationwide League players such as Simon Davies, Gary Doherty and Anthony Gardner. "It's got to be beneficial playing week in, week out," he says of the experience being gathered by players back at Sheffield such as Tonge and Phil Jagielka, who will follow him into the Premiership.
In fact those players almost achieved more than any of the existing Spurs squad - reaching a Cup final. "When you come to a place like Tottenham you think, 'Yeah, this is the kind of club that can do it'," Brown says. But he adds: "The manager [Pleat] was just asking who had actually played in one. Nobody had - apart from Chris [Hughton, the first-team coach] - so he said, 'There's a great incentive for you boys'." The first of Hughton's three finals was in 1981. The opponents? Man-chester City, of course. A repeat victory would provide that perfect birthday present after all.
From Villa Park to Ricky Villa
1956, Semi-final, Villa Park. City 1 Spurs 0
Bobby Johnstone, known to the Maine Road faithful as Bobby Dazzler, scored the goal that took City back to Wembley, where they fulfilled captain Roy Paul's vow to win the Cup in 1956 after losing to Newcastle in the previous year's final. They beat Birmingham 3-1, Bert Trautmann playing the final 20 minutes with a broken neck.
1969, Sixth round. City 1 Spurs 0
A Francis Lee goal at Maine Road earned Joe Mercer's side a semi-final slot, en route to what remains City's most recent FA Cup conquest. They went on to beat Leicester 1-0 in the final, with a Neil Young goal. During the Cup run, they adopted the club's red-and-black-striped change colours, seeking to gain the invincible aura of Milan.
1981, Final. Spurs 1 City 1
Tommy Hutchison staked his claim to Trivial Pursuit fame, putting City into the lead with a diving header and then deflecting a Glenn Hoddle free-kick past Joe Corrigan. The Scottish left-winger was not, however, the first player to score for both sides in a final, Bert Turner of Charlton having achieved the feat in his team's 4-1 loss to Derby in 1946.
1981, Final replay. Spurs 3 City 2
The first FA Cup final replay at Wembley featured a cracking volley by Steve Mackenzie, whom Malcolm Allison had made British football's most expensive teenager. It was eclipsed, though, by the wondrous 35-yard dribble which culminated in Ricardo Villa scoring the winner, then running 60 yards in celebration. Simon TurnbullReuse content