Of all the backroom staff Gustavo Poyet brought to Sunderland, Antonio Pintus was the least heralded, but he could prove the most important in keeping the Black Cats up this season.
Sunderland’s fitness coach is the newest addition to Team Poyet, the only member not to have been with him at Brighton and Hove Albion. The 51-year-old has never worked with Poyet the coach, only Poyet the player.
Counting the likes of Juventus, Marseilles, Monaco and Chelsea among his ten previous clubs, the Italian comes with an impressive pedigree. Just as well, because he has a big job on his hands thanks in no small part to a certain Wesley Brown.
Quickly after making his Manchester United debut as an 18-year-old, Brown established himself as one of England’s “most natural defenders” to re-use one of the phrases most readily spoken about him. He has played in a European Cup final, where he set up Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal.
Unfortunately there is one phrase which springs to mind even more quickly when thinking about the six-footer with a penchant for orange hair – “injury-prone”. Brown has five Premier League winner’s medals, two FA Cup, three League Cup, one European Cup and four in the Charity Shield, yet incredibly his career is a sad story of what-might-have-beens. He has never played for England in a major tournament.
Since the anoraks at physioroom.com started collecting data on his injuries at the start of the 2002-03 season, Brown has missed 226 club matches through illness or leg injuries. He has played 299 in the same period.
His first four years had hardly been plain sailing either. He did not kick a ball in 1999-2000 after suffering his first cruciate knee injury. He has been fighting his body ever since, and not winning as often as he would have liked.
Brown has always had the footballing brain of a man twice his age. The trouble is, the same could almost be said of his body.
Paolo Di Canio had the solution, offering to write Brown a cheque to shuffle off into retirement. Even by the standards of his disastrous six-month spell in charge, it could have been one of the Italian’s biggest mistakes.
After 21 months out through injury, Brown has played in Sunderland’s last two-and-a-half games – all in the space of a week-and-a-half – and it has been instantly obvious what they have been missing. The transformation in the team has been remarkable.
Poyet said on day one in the job he planned to rebuild his demoralised side from the back. He did not have an awful lot of choice.
When you have so few goalscorers in your squad – Steven Fletcher and perennial substitute Craig Gardner are arguably the only exceptions – not conceding goals is an absolute must. With Brown in the side it is suddenly possible.
Sunderland conceded four goals in Poyet’s opening game, at Swansea, and although they won his second, it owed much more to an inspired swing of Fabio Borini’s boot than any stunning performance. At Hull City Carlos Cuellar scored the third own goal of Poyet’s three matches in charge and the team were trailing again. Two red cards in first-half added time forced Poyet’s hand. He had to throw Brown into the fray.
With Brown marshalling a back three, Sunderland not only did not concede another goal, they barely looked like doing so despite Hull’s two-man numerical advantage.
It was only 45 minutes, it was only Hull, and it was a very different job to playing 11 v 11, but it was the most secure Sunderland had looked for a very long time.
For 88 minutes Sunderland threatened to claim their first clean sheet of the season against Southampton in the League Cup, only for a characteristic moment of dozing at a set-piece to let in Maya Yoshida. Four days later they managed it against a Manchester City team which had scored 12 goals in its last two games. Granted it was not the most miserly defensive performance you will ever see in your life – the billionaires managed 24 shots at goal. Crucially, though, only four troubled Vito Mannone. Brown has always been a good reader of the game, and it allowed him to make six crucial interceptions as well as his ten clearances.
His passing was exemplary and he even set up the only goal of the day, for fellow Mancunian Phil Bardsley.
“Maybe that’s the different level of a player who has won the Premier League,” said Poyet after the game. “He can see things before the rest.”
Defenders of Brown’s quality are not just good players in their own right, they make those around them look better too. For the first time in a long time John O’Shea can concentrate on his own job without having to worry about where he needs to be if his central defensive partner makes a mistake. Poyet is not the first coach to have to wrestle with the conundrum of a centre-back whose mind is strong but body is weak. Paul McGrath and Ledley King made brilliant careers out of defying medical logic. John Mensah did it brilliantly in his first season on Wearside.
Brown can be as good for Sunderland now as Mensah was then. Devising a fitness regime that can coax another 15 games out of him this season could well be the difference between playing in the Premier League or the Championship.