Fifteen years at Manchester United assured Wes Brown made his fair share of football history, but the thought of more will drive him on tonight. The centre-back knows as well as anyone, though, how hard that will be.
Yesterday coach Gustavo Poyet joked that 1973 “was the first number I learnt” on joining the club. No one who has worked for the Black Cats could ever claim ignorance about the significance of those four digits, marking the year of Sunderland’s last major trophy, the FA Cup.
“Memories of 1973 are all over the place,” Brown admits. “Even at the training ground, there are photos down every corridor. It just shows you what it can all mean for the club. It would be great to do it again.”
Emulating the heroics of Jimmy Montgomery, Ian Porterfield et al is a regular January topic, normally swiftly followed by the crash down to earth of another FA Cup exit. This year cup glory, in the League Cup, is a realistic possibility. Sunderland will be second favourites for tonight’s semi-final first leg at the Stadium of Light, but both teams have made a habit of upsetting the odds this season. The Red Devils are under severe pressure after Sunday’s FA Cup exit at home to Swansea City, with their chances of retaining the Premier League fading fast.
Whereas they have looked less than the sum of their parts at times, the opposite has been true of the Black Cats in big one-off games.
“We’re 100% in the cups this season,” Brown points out. “I can’t really put my finger on why we are doing better in the cups than the league. Maybe it is just that cup spirit. If we can take that into the league games, it would be perfect but right now, it’s the cup that occupies the mind.
“We can take an awful lot out of our wins against Southampton and Chelsea in the previous rounds and I think we will do that. They were good teams coming here but we beat them fair and square.
“At times, we have played some good football this season. Maybe it’s just that end product we can do that little bit better. But that is everyone in the team – I am not pointing fingers.
“We’ve got to take encouragement from the fact we have done well against the big teams – Chelsea and (Manchester) City (in the Premier League). The lads have got to keep that in their heads, trying to remember what we did in those game. That should give us confidence.” There are two ways of looking at Manchester United’s mindset. Either back-to-back defeats for the second time in just over a week will add a weight to the visiting players’ shoulders which could crush them, or Sunderland had better prepare themselves for a real backlash.
It is no surprise to hear which one Brown is gearing himself up for.
“They will want to win the cup just as much as us,” he warns. “But it should give us more confidence that United are not having one of their best seasons and that is something we have to take advantage of. Make no mistake, however, they will be just as hungry as us. They want a trophy.
“In all my years there I can’t remember us losing too many semi-finals. We had a pretty good record once we reached the later stages. We were favourites in most of them and I can’t recall us losing to an underdog. United are pretty much up there with the best teams when it comes to reaching cup finals so we are under no illusions. It’s a tough ask.
“But it’s all about us. We have the first leg at home and it is not one of those when you feel you can get a draw and then sneak a win at Old Trafford. We are looking to win this one and if we do that, we can set our tactics for the return.
“I don’t really know what’s been going on there but they won’t be happy with results so far. They are used to being top three all the time. They won it (the Premier League) last season and would be expecting to win it again this year. But a lot has changed and it is maybe taking a bit more time. Personally, I feel whoever had gone in (to replace Sir Alex Ferguson as manager) it would have been the same.
“I feel sure United will turn it around but I would say that, wouldn’t I? Right now I would have thought they would be hurting, not being up there with the top teams. So many of them have won so many things and their pride will have been dented. I am sure they all believe that if they carry on giving 100%, it will all come together but until then, they have got to stick together.”
All well and good, but Sunderland fans are only interested in how their team can turn things around after half a season rooted to the bottom of the table.
“We just have to keep at it,” says Brown, captain for the day on Sunday, but set to hand the armband back to his fit-again central defensive partner John O’Shea tonight. “We can’t afford to let our heads drop at any point. We need to keep confidence intact. We have to show commitment on the pitch and show we really want it. I know we keep saying it, but I can think of many times we should have nicked a goal here and there and that is not just down to one or two players.
“We get chances as a team – on Sunday for example, I could have scored but the ball just stuck there. There is no point feeling down about it because there is still half a season to go. In the league, we are in a bad position and need to sort it out.
“We have shown signs of improvement only to get kicked again. We have to keep believing.”
As well as adding to their frustration, Sunderland’s progress in the competition has re-opened the debate about the value of cup glory versus league survival.
“Someone asked me the other day which I would rather do – win the cup or stay up?” Brown says. “I would rather stay up because I’ve been fortunate to win a few things but we are in the semi-finals now and I’m desperate to win. It would be massive for this club to reach Wembley.
“Since I have been here, I have only played against United once due to injuries.
“That was at Old Trafford and I scored an own goal! So this will be the first time I’ve played against them here. Bring it on!”