As he bowled towards the exit at the Stadium of Light on Sunday evening, John O’Shea clapped his eyes on Wes Brown addressing the microphones of the collected press and smiled.
“Blimey, is it a mirage?” he quipped, as he gave his former Manchester United colleague and long-time friend a hearty slap on the back. For Sunderland it has been more like an oasis of calm at the back since Brown – who took the joke in the spirit it was intended – returned to their back four.
Before Brown and O’Shea were paired together, Sunderland shipped six goals in 225 minutes. Since they came back, it has been one in the same period. That is no coincidence.
As unexpected as it has been, Brown’s return has given the Black Cats hope of salvation, as well as offering them a tantalising glimpse of the back four that Steve Bruce was trying to put together in the summer of 2011. The improvement has been almost instant. Less mirage, more miraculous.
It is 12 years since Sir Alex Ferguson hailed the young defender as the best centre-back in England, putting his reputation on the line by rating him higher than Rio Ferdinand and the imperious Sol Campbell.
Had things transpired a bit differently in the interim, the Sunderland centre-back might have been dreaming of Rio rather than facing down a Premier League relegation fight. But when you have been through 14 months in and out of a lonely treatment room, even a chilly stadium in East Yorkshire can feel like the spiritual home of football.
When Brown was called from the bench at Hull City’s KC Stadium to try and shore up a desperate Sunderland effort it marked the end of a long, hard road back to fitness for a defender who had suffered chronic problems with his knees.
It got so bad at one point that, according to former boss Martin O’Neill, Sunderland attempted to nurse him back to fitness with injections of sugar solution into his knee. To sketch out a bit of context, that is a treatment more often associated with arthritis.
Whatever else deserted him in the meantime, two things remained: firstly, the exquisite timing that persuaded Sir Alex to rate him above Ferdinand and John Terry when he was first emerging from the Old Trafford talent factory. And secondly, the sense of perspective that ensured there would be none of the introspection or anguish that sometimes marks out long-term injury victims.
Brown has another explanation for managing to block out any negative thoughts about his career prospects. “I guess I’m just a bit weird,” he chuckles.
Throught it all – from Paolo Di Canio brokering the possibility of paying him off, to the unexplained breakdowns in training – he just kept his head down, got on with it. His was an uncomplaining and upbeat presence, never deterred by the idea that the injuries might be diminishing his chances of getting back into the fray.
“It’s good to be back,” he says, in something approaching the understatement of the year.
“Whatever was being said I’ve always just carried on. I never really felt any negative thoughts, even though I’m getting older now. There was no point in being negative as you just have to keep going and working hard.
“I never thought about leaving. I was fine just carrying on. It was just one of those things and anyway, I like it here. When I’m fit I only want to get in the team and play well, but I just needed to get fit.
“I did all pre-season, but then I just got injured again so there were lots of ups and downs, but I’ve had a good run of games now, also in the reserves, and I can just keep going.”
Of course, Sunderland fans know that they cannot take anything for granted when it comes to Brown. Life is rarely black and white for him with his fitness record, and under Poyet he is permitted to leave the sessions early so as not to put too much pressure on his knees.
That raises the possibility that Sunderland might lose the defender again just as they are getting used to his calm composure but Brown is unconcerned. As he points out, he has actually enjoyed four weeks of unbroken availability – it is just that he is only back playing now.
“I’ve had lots of problems in the past but I’ve been training for a good month now, playing reserve games and the game in midweek was good for me as well. I think adrenalin got me through in the end and I’ll have a good recovery now. I need now to get ready for the international break.”
Of course Brown would not be the first player to manage himself through chronic injury problems. Ferdinand has a back problem which requires rest while, famously, Ledley King spent his weekdays in the pool before pulling on a pair of boots and regularly out-shining everyone else.
For Brown the situation is far from as drastic as those examples. He is able to shave 20 or so minutes off most of Sunderland’s sessions and still comfortably fit in enough to get himself up to speed with the rest of the Black Cats squad.
“I go out, do a little bit, then go back in before everyone else,” he explained.
“I might just miss the end of a session and although it doesn’t mean I miss complete sessions, I can miss the last 20 minutes but other than that it’s normal.
“Most people of my age (he is 34) probably do that, I don’t know. I’ve had problems with my knee so I just have to be careful. If I feel it, I just won’t do as much training.”
In that respect, the two-week international break has come at a good time for the centre-back. It will give him the chance to rest and recuperate while the club continues to try and build momentum after a pair of wins that have helped to transform the mood at the club.
For Brown, the defeat of Manchester City was a sizeable fillip.
“It was a big win and one we really needed. No one probably expected it but we have been doing well in the last few weeks and the lads believe in it. Especially in the first half I thought we played very well,” he said.
“If we had lost today, we would still be in the same position and although we might have played well at times, we really need the points. That’s all that counts.
“Nobody will remember this game in a few weeks, they will only remember the score. We needed the points and we managed to get them.”