Speaking exclusively to Football FanCast from Marriott Hotels Seat of Dreams at Old Trafford, former Manchester United defender Wes Brown gave his thoughts on his time at the club and how things are panning out for the Red Devils right now.
A product of United’s much-vaunted academy, Brown enjoyed an impressive rise from the club’s youth system, winning two successive Jimmy Murphy Academy Player of the Year awards in the late 1990s. Despite the accolades, Brown insisted that he didn’t feel the pressure of having to perform when breaking into the first-team.
“It was a different time back then, I was a young lad. I just wanted to play well and tried my best in every game. The opportunities that I had with the first-team squad in training, I tried to do my best, and obviously the manager thought I was ready and threw me in to see what I was like and I did really well.
“It can go different ways sometimes, you might think it can take a bit longer with young lads coming through, but luckily I was one that was kept in from a very young age.”
Brown’s emergence onto the scene coincided with United enjoying one of their greatest ever seasons – the 1998/1999 treble winning campaign, which saw them lift the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League.
“My first full season was a treble. Fantastic squad and players. For me coming through, it made my game very easy for what I had to do, and everyone else did their job. The way the manager handled it was brilliant, he threw me in a lot of big games to let me get the experience.
“Once he’s happy with that and knows you can handle it, then you’re pretty much in the team and you’re ready to go every game.”
With the Red Devils seeing a new crop of youngsters coming through the system, including the likes of Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams, it’s an exciting time for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to be at the helm.
The transition from youth team football to senior football is seldom a seamless transition, though, and with that in mind Brown shared a word of advice for how Greenwood and Williams can make a name for themselves at Old Trafford.
“You’ve just got to enjoy it. These are the best players at their age. But when you do play in the first-team, things are different, you’re playing against men, and experienced, clever players. It’s just a learning curve and I’m sure they’ll be fine. They’ve been excellent when they’ve come into the team.
“Mason, we all know his goal-scoring ability and what he can do once he gets the opportunity to shoot. And Williams again, has come in when (Luke) Shaw was injured. You’ve got to take your chance, and these two especially are the two that have really pushed forward this season.”
During his Old Trafford career, Brown won numerous trophies, with the Red Devils’ success no doubt a result of Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatness – the Scot led the Manchester outfit to a quite remarkable 38 trophies.
And with the centre-back’s former teammate Solskjaer currently in charge of the club, he believes the Norwegian will be taking inspiration from United’s greatest ever manager.
“The manager was the best. I’m sure Ole’s said it before, he’s tried to take a lot of things off Sir Alex, the way he prepares the players, the way he spoke to them individually and as a team. Sir Alex was the best at that and I’m pretty sure Ole will use some of that as well, plus his own stuff.
“Before every game we were ready to go out and battle. The manager was very good at getting us up.”
As well as Ferguson, Brown also shared a dressing room with another of the Premier League’s all-time greats: Roy Keane.
The Irishman was captain for a number of years whilst the 40-year-old was at the club.
And although he admitted the tough-tackling midfielder could be an intimidating presence, he revealed he could also show a surprisingly softer side too.
“The best captain we’ve ever had. He was the manager on the pitch, the guy who set the standard. When you were a young lad coming through, he can be pretty scary until you get to know him. He’s just trying to do his best for the team, and then you start to understand that a bit when you get older.
“He would shout at you, but at the same time, he’d be the first one to say well done as well. Hard work is the basics of the game, and that’s all he asked for. Everyone get stuck in, and give 100%.”
Following his involvement with the treble-winning team in 1999, Brown played an even larger role during the club’s famous Champions League triumph in 2008 when they beat Chelsea in a penalty shoot-out – a game in which the defender provided the cross for Cristiano Ronaldo’s towering header.
But whilst he acknowledged how big of an achievement it was, he insisted the sheer nature of their campaign in 1999 felt far more satisfying.
“The best feeling I ever had was in 1999. You can’t beat the way the whole season panned out. Obviously I wasn’t playing, I was on the bench, but nothing ever quite matched that feeling. Don’t get me wrong, that 2008 team had the potential to be better than the 1999 team, but ultimately, they weren’t because they didn’t do the treble. At the end of the day that’s what it comes down to.”
Since the heady days of the Red Devils contesting for the biggest titles on offer both home and abroad, things have taken a bit of a downturn in recent years – following the retirement of Ferguson back in 2013, United have not lifted either the Premier League or Champions League trophy.
The Manchester side faced some major criticism last summer when they allowed Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez to leave without signing like-for-like replacements.
Club legend Paul Scholes even remarked that he felt his old side had made a “mistake” in not recognising their need for a striker.
Though Brown recognised that Lukaku is a “very good player”, he also expressed his understanding for how the club handled the entire situation.
“People will say we got left short a bit which is fair enough. But the way we started this season with Rashford up front, I don’t think Romelu Lukaku would be playing. He’s a very good player by the way, and he wants to be playing, so if someone wants to leave, there’s nothing much you can do.
“If I’m being honest, you have to start somewhere, and it probably wasn’t ideal. But at the same time, if a player doesn’t want to be here or want to play, and a team comes in, you have to let them go.”
Despite the lack of silverware, Brown talked up the potential of this current squad, and praised Solskjaer for the signings that he has made over the past couple of transfer windows.
“I do like the signings he’s done. It’s been a good season for the signings, they’ve settled in very well and getting better all the time. I think Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire in particular have done very well for me, and January, you get Odion Ighalo in.
“He’s a very experienced player, who’s really excited to be at the club, and is going to work hard and do his best, and now got a goal.
“Then you bring in Bruno. You’re hoping that he can meet the expectations, and straight away he’s gone off with a bang. The confidence he brings to the team, already you can see different movements as soon as he gets the ball, because everyone knows he wants to play the pass and play that final ball. He could get even better as well, so it’s still early, but he’s been absolutely excellent.”
Solskjaer’s side currently find themselves fighting for the top four this season, and whilst it has been a generally disappointing campaign, Brown picked out some of the United starlets who have really caught his eye.
“Obviously we know about Marcus (Rashford), I think until he got injured he was the main guy this year. You could see what sort of a special player he is.
“Williams coming in has been fantastic. I’ve watched (Angel) Gomes many times playing for the U23s and can completely see the talent that he has, and I think with more time he’ll be one to watch.
“You always have to remember that young lads come in at different times. I was very early to come in, people like John O’Shea was a little bit later, same with Darren Fletcher. But the best thing is Ole sees that they’ve got the ability, and their standards are high enough to put them in the team in the first place.”
The young duo see their contracts expire at the end of this season and as of yet appear no closer to putting pen to paper on a new deal, although Brown remained hopeful fresh terms will be penned soon.
“They’re both talented players and I’m sure they’ll want to stay and everything can get sorted out. But there’s a lot of young lads in the team that are all trying to get into that first-team squad. These two are good players and Ole will know the right time to bring them in. He’s brought them in every now and again this season, and sometimes it takes a little bit longer. Hopefully they get sorted out.”
And with attentions naturally turning towards what could be a very busy summer at United, Brown pin-pointed the three potential players who could help take the Red Devils back to the top.
“Give me (Jadon) Sancho, (Jack) Grealish and (James) Maddison. How much would that cost?! There’s some good players out there, and I’m sure it’s going to be interesting.
“I’m sure Ole will have his eye on all of them at the right time. But you do have to look for the right players for the team.”
Whether United qualify for the Champions League or not appears to be the big defining factor for what the club can pull off in the summer.
Achieve it, and the sky really is the limit.
As Brown alludes to, Solskjaer will no doubt have his eyes open for the players he needs to strengthen the squad and restore the Manchester side to their former glory
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