Wes Brown played 362 times for Manchester United in a 16-year career at the club he grew up supporting. A treble winner in his first season, he left United in 2011 having won 14 trophies.
Now 38, he’s playing in the Indian Super League with a Kerala Blasters side managed by his former United coach Rene Muelensteen and featuring former teammate Dimitar Berbatov.
ESPN FC sat down with him for an exclusive interview.
How do you look back on your football career?
I’ve had a great career. People say I’ve had injuries, but all players get injuries. What matters is how you get over them and I was always able to do that and continue playing to the age I am now. I suffered injuries early on at United but still managed to stay in the first team for 12 years.
My first full season was the treble winning season. That remains my highlight as a player. I remember thinking: “It’s going to take something to topple this,” and nothing really did.
That success gave me a mental marker of the standards Manchester United should aim for. I played 21 times that season, including the away game in Barcelona — that great 3-3 draw — and at home to Bayern Munich. The gaffer (Sir Alex Ferguson) was good at bringing young lads in and giving you a chance to earn his trust by playing you in big games. Then the big boys were brought out for the knock-out stages.
I was on the bench in Turin for the semifinal against Juventus. [Roy Keane] was a joke in that game, [Andy Cole] and [Dwight Yorke] were on fire that season. We felt like we would never lose, even in the final against Bayern Munich.
But United were a goal down after 89 minutes…
I know, and Bayern were the best team and deserved to win, but we never stopped, never gave in. At no point did I think that game was lost. Seriously. That came from the manager. When we did score, I knew we’d win. I ran down the line and ran down it again when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the winner. It was the best feeling that I’ve ever had.
You grew up in Longsight, inner city Manchester…
I grew up as a United fan but didn’t go to many games. I was always playing football; all I did was play football every day. I did karate until I was 10 and failed my black belt twice. I was very sporty and joined Fletcher Moss Rangers at 10. When I was 13 I was scouted by United, who I signed for on my 14th birthday.
You were well rated at United, as was your central defensive partner Alan Griffin. In his 23 years at the club, Paul McGuinness, your youth coach said Griffin and Ravel Morrison were the two players who lost their way and that United didn’t sign Jonathan Woodgate because they had Alan.
Alan was absolutely brilliant and reminded me of Ronald Koeman. I was more athletic; he was more advanced as a player technically. He was from Ancoats in Manchester. He just didn’t come to training and eventually the club let him go. I’d see him around every now and then, we’d been close mates, but it was a big shame that things didn’t work out for him. I’m sure he had regrets.
McGuinness told me of you: “Wes Brown is one of the best youth players I’ve ever seen. He was so natural, so athletic, composed, strong and aggressive. He obviously made it but if he hadn’t had those injuries then he would have had 100 caps for England.”
I played in good youth teams under Paul, but we never won the Youth Cup. Paul was a good coach, but what could I do about injuries? It wasn’t like I wanted them.
What do you remember of your United first-team debut? (Against Leeds in May 1998)
(Fellow defender) Gary Pallister said to me: “You’re playing tomorrow.” It was the first time I got nervous about football and I didn’t sleep that night. I didn’t even start the game, but came on as sub and marked Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink of Leeds. I did really well. Someone played the ball down the line and I beat him to the ball. Jimmy said: “Bloody hell, Wes, slow down.” I was buzzing that he knew my name.
Why, unlike those players who all had decent careers for smaller clubs, did you become a United first teamer?
I always tried to do the basics well and never tried to do anything fancy. My job was to defend. The gaffer would say to me: “Give the ball to the other players.” I was quick, aggressive and OK in the air. I was confident in myself, too. If the gaffer asked me to challenge a player I had the confidence to think I’d come out on top.
Who was the hardest player you played against?
You might expect me to say some of the lads from Real Madrid or Barcelona or wherever, but it was John Hartson at Coventry City. I tried to be aggressive and bully him, but he bullied me all over the pitch. I was young, I learned a lot from him. It took me time to learn that you could play opponents in different ways.
I played against Zinedine Zidane in the Champions League. I was right-back and he was on the left side of midfield. I couldn’t get near him because I didn’t know what position he was supposed to be in. I’d go to make a challenge and he’d one touch the ball out to Roberto Carlos who’d then run past me. They were so good; there was no point me even playing.
I marked the Brazilian Ronaldo, too. He’d had his injuries but he was still unbelievable. I marked him in Madrid and again at Old Trafford when he scored a hat trick. Maybe we gave him too much respect in the sense we gave him a lot of time, but when he shot he scored. Our fans cheered him off that night. I could understand why.
Which players did you most enjoy playing alongside?
Laurent Blanc gave me a lot of advice in English about positioning. He was unbelievable when he was younger, but he was older when he came to Old Trafford and his legs had gone a little bit. He just couldn’t run as fast, yet he performed because he read the game so well.
Jaap Stam was brilliant; I’ve never seen a stronger defender. He suited English football and I was surprised when he went, we all were.
Rio Ferdinand was the calmest I’ve ever seen on the ball, a good leader too. He could be nasty if he wanted to be, but he left a lot of that to Vida (Nemanja Vidic), the best player I’ve ever seen head a ball. He would never lose a ball in the air.
(Gerard) Pique was “ledge”. He wasn’t as aggressive when he was younger, but it was going to be difficult for him to get in ahead of Vida or Rio. It worked out for everyone when he left. Barcelona was perfect for him.
Maysie (David May), Henning Berg, Ronnie Johnsen. All top players. You have to be to play for a successful Manchester United. “Gaz” Neville was the best right-back I’ve ever seen.
And the lads in front?
Keano set such high standards at the club that he influenced Manchester United long after he’d left. He trained every day like it was the Champions League final against Liverpool. [Ryan Giggs] was the same. I hated marking him in training. He’s one of the fittest lads I’ve ever met.
Wayne Rooney came as a kid. I’d played against him when he was at Everton. He was 16 yet built like a fully grown man. He had one of the best techniques I’d seen. He could finish from anywhere. I’m close mates with Wayne and I’m not surprised he’s broken United’s all-time scoring record.
His ball skills were there from the minute he arrived, but he was nowhere near as big as he is now. He worked on everything; he’s the only player I’ve seen work that hard in the gym every day.
Who were the pranksters?
Patrice (Evra) was always full of smiles, but serious when the games started. Anderson and Nani were a great laugh. We had a few burnt trainers, but nothing too bad. There were a lot of smiles in that dressing room.
Why did you leave?
I wasn’t going to play. The gaffer told me that and that other clubs were interested. I’d been at the club long enough to know that change was constant. I knew it was time to leave. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones signed, Rafael and Fabio too.
I was gutted when I left because I didn’t see anyone to say goodbye properly. I only saw people when I came back to Old Trafford. My trips back didn’t always go well — I scored an own goal in one game and I was sent off in another. But we also won twice, including the League Cup semifinal on penalties.
I went to Blackburn Rovers last season. I didn’t play much. I saw a different side of football being at a club which was really struggling, which changed managers from Owen Coyle to Tony Mowbray. We nearly stayed up in the Championship, but our rivals also won their games at the end. Blackburn should be in the top flight, not the third division.
Did you ask Sir Alex for advice about what to do next?
I’ve seen him a few times and he clips me on the head as he’s always done. “Wes!” he says. Only my grandma calls me Wesley. The gaffer looks really well.
So why India?
I had a few calls from here including one from Teddy Sheringham who is at Calcutta, but it felt right to join Kerala. I’ve known Berba for ages, the goalkeeper Paul Rachubka too. Then there’s Rene, a very good coach.
I want to play for as long as possible. I can understand why people say the thing they most miss is the craic among the lads. Lads like Andy Cole told me that they stopped a year or two too early. I don’t want to have those regrets.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.