Gus Poyet has backed Wes Brown to turn back the clock at Old Trafford this week – after telling the veteran centre-back he can play until he’s 40 if he wants to.
Plenty is resting on Brown’s shoulders as Sunderland head to troubled Manchester United looking to protect their Capital One Cup semi-final, first-leg advantage and book a first major final berth since 1992.
Although the Red Devils are in woeful form – they have lost three of their last four – there can be no taking their semi-final assignment for granted and Brown’s role will be key as Sunderland look to protect their 2-1 lead in the North West.
Brown’s return to form and fitness came at exactly the right time for Poyet, who took over just as the 34-year-old defender was coming back from a knee injury that has seen him miss almost two years of football.
And Poyet reckons that his class means that a long career is assured – if he continues to follow the training regime that is working for him.
He said: “He reads the game, he knows the game, he anticipates plenty of things.
“He knows what we want and he adapted quickly to what we wanted, he’s doing it.
“I don’t know if he likes it, but he’s doing it, which is great for me. He at least knows why we’re doing the things we’re doing and the way we’re playing. That’s important.
“I would say if we keep playing the way we are playing, Wes could play with us until he is 40.
“He has a way of playing, there is a way of understanding the shape, how high up you play,
plenty of things that influence the game. When you are so ahead of the game, if you keep yourself normally fit you can go on.
“Does he want to play until he’s 40? I don’t think so, but maybe he will. We’ve got Kevin Phillips (doing that) now.
“I think at the age of 27, 28, you should know everything. If you don’t, you are not good enough.
“From then on you just play with the mind, with cleverness and intelligence.
“It’s the best time over 30, because you become smart.”
There is a certain symmetry about Brown going back to Old Trafford, where he learned his trade, for arguably Sunderland’s biggest game for some 20 years.
Having been told he could leave the club in the summer if he wanted to, Brown is now a key man in Poyet’s bid to achieve success on two fronts.
And the Uruguayan thinks that he has buried the fitness concerns that swarmed around him earlier this season.
He said: “We’re so happy we were able to follow his regime for coming back.
“In my first week or two he was already training with us but because he hadn’t played for so long he played a game with us indoors.
“Nowadays sometimes you send a player to the reserves and it’s seen like a punishment because they’re terrible.
“We don’t think like that. So we asked him to play in the reserves, then he played another game.
“We put him on the bench – no problems whatsoever. Then his first game we pushed him in.
“We were down to nine (men, at Hull City) so it was, ‘All the best Wes, welcome back!’ He did unbelievably. We didn’t conceded with nine against 11.
“Then in midweek we had the cup game (in the League Cup), how important that was for him to play 90 minutes against Southampton.
“And then he didn’t want to rest. I asked him a few times, ‘Are you playing too many games?’ and he said, ‘No, I want to play.’
“He missed so much for three years that he didn’t want to miss one game because he’d played two in a week. He said, ‘Oh, come on, let me play.’
“Maybe his suspension helped us, who knows, because he had the rest he needed. But he’s been great.
“It’s difficult (in our improvement) to say who’s made the biggest difference but he’s played a big part, a big part.”