What's the saying? "You can take the lad out of Manchester, but..." Well, to prove the point, let's ask Wes Brown his thoughts on Liverpool's title hopes this season. "I don't think so," comes the succinct appraisal, delivered in those highly distinctive, slightly nasal Mancunian tones. "Not this year." He may no longer be part of the fabric at Old Trafford, but some rivalries remain ingrained wherever your footballing career may take you.
It was Steve Bruce who finally took this lad out of Manchester, or Salford if you want to be pedantically accurate, early last month. Brown was one of 10 summer signings made by the Sunderland manager, something of a quantum leap given Bruce's insistence as recently as January that the squad would require only minor surgery before the start of this season, the 20th of the Premier League era and Brown's 15th.
That, of course, is now upon us, and what more testing a location than Anfield for Brown and up to four of his fellow new arrivals – the midfield trio of Seb Larsson, David Vaughan and Craig Gardner in addition to goalkeeper Keiren Westwood – to take their Sunderland bow, although John O'Shea, who mirrored his former Manchester United team-mate's transfer north, must delay his first start due to a hamstring injury.
The significance of a player making his debut has been somewhat dulled in an era where the current generation experience an increasingly fluid movement between clubs in often transitory careers. Not in the case of Brown, whose previous one came more than 13 years ago in United's end-of-season win over Leeds, when football in general and the Premier League in particular was a very different beast. "It's a long time ago, but I remember it very well," the defender recalls. "I hadn't really thought about it until someone mentioned it to me, but if you look at it, I suppose it has to be one of the longest gaps there's been between debuts.
"The day before, Gary Pallister told me I would be playing. We had already lost the league, and in the end, the manager changed things and I didn't start after all but I came on as substitute. I didn't sleep the whole night ahead of it. There were nerves and excitement, a mixture of both really, although probably more nerves." Within a year, he had won the first of his 23 England caps, his international career coming to a close with his retirement at the highest level 12 months ago.
So it will be a rather more street-wise, dare we say cynical Brown who enjoys debut number two at a venue where, in a 3-1 defeat in March, he made the 358th of his 361 appearances for United, that coming a fortnight after the last of his modest tally of five goals for the club, in the FA Cup victory over Crawley.
Sunderland are without a win at Liverpool since October 1983. Indeed, Darren Bent's two goals in the 2-2 draw in last season's corresponding fixture were their first at Anfield in more than a decade, an abject run spanning seven trips. "It's very different circumstances for me now," Brown added. "Given that, my attitude has always stayed the same, and hopefully I can bring that to the club and the team. Whatever stage you're at in your career, you've still got to do the same things in training and out on the pitch. Nothing changes in that respect." Brown turns 32 in October, veritably ancient in comparison to many of his new team-mates. "There are a lot of young lads in this squad, but even at United, I was still one of the oldest, so I'm quite used to having younger team-mates around me.
"I've been in football for a few years now, but you still get that buzz at the start of the season. We've done our work in the build-up and it's time to get out there on the pitch. You won't see me shouting, ranting and raving but I talk a lot on the pitch and we've done a bit of that pre-season. Hopefully, I can bring my experience and talk the younger lads through games, although not necessarily a Roy Keane, rollocking them."
With just 33 Premier League appearances, many of them off the bench, in the last three seasons, Brown knew the end was nigh on his United career. He spoke earlier this summer at his "relief" when Sir Alex Ferguson sat him down and told him it was time for a fresh start. Proving impervious to advances made by Stoke City, Brown had little hesitation in signing for Bruce, who had brought the curtain down on nine years at Old Trafford just six months before the young defender agreed his first professional terms at the club in 1996. The lad from Longsight would go on to earn two Champions League winner's medals, five Premier League, and two each in the FA Cup and League Cup.
He has renewed acquaintances with former team-mates Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley as Sunderland look to maintain their steady year-on-year improvement since returning to the top flight four years ago under another United old boy, Keane. Last season's 10th place was their highest since 2001, and this summer's heavy investment alone demands a single-digit finish, if not a challenge for a European place. Brown added: "If you look at history, it always turns out that the top six or seven each season are pretty predictable. We have to change all that. With a few more wins than last season, we have a chance of doing just that.
"The gaffer has gone out and thought about what he's going to do. He's strengthened things, no one can complain about that. I'm sure the fans are delighted with what they've seen, but now it is up to us to put it all together and get going as a team."
Despite confidently writing off their title aspirations, Brown is not totally dismissive of the force Liverpool, King Kenny and all, could prove to be this season: "They've bought some good players," Brown admitted. "As a result, they have definitely strengthened the squad. They have strength in depth but in terms of us going there, I still think their main player is Steven Gerrard, and he's out of this game. That gives us a boost."
Brown could have spent this entire interview singing the praises of the red half of Merseyside safe in the knowledge that a predictably hostile reception would still no doubt await this afternoon, at a location where Bruce remains the target of merciless abuse from the stands some 15 years after leaving Old Trafford. "Of course there will be stick from the fans," Brown added. "I'm sure the manager will get a bit as well.
"To be honest, I like it, as it just drives me on and gets me going. The more I get, the better as far I'm concerned. It makes you play harder. I'll definitely be getting a few Manc shouts."
This time, visiting as a Black Cat rather than a Red Devil, the taunts will simply remind him of home. He wouldn't have it any other way.Reuse content