Wesley Brown and John O’Shea each agreed moves to Sunderland on Thursday, ending more than a decade of the pair at Old Trafford. Between them the players have appeared on more than 750 occasions for Manchester United, not representing the very best players at Old Trafford, but invaluable members of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad nonetheless. With the pair’s departure Ferguson loses not only experience and loyalty but a genuine sense of what being a United play entails.
Brown, 31, completed a medical at the Stadium of Light on Thursday and has agreed a four-year with Steve Bruce’s Wearsiders. The fee, which is officially ‘undisclosed’, will net United £1 million for youth team product. Meanwhile, O’Shea, 30, also completed a move to Sunderland, having passed a medical and agreed a four-year contract with the club. United will earn a fee of around £5 million for the Waterford-born Irishman.
Each has lost his place in the United first team – some might say neither ever fully earned it – with Brown falling out of favour following a well-publicised argument with Ferguson during last summer’s tour of North America. Few players have ever returned from falling foul of the Scot’s ire; that Brown reportedly called Ferguson a “c*nt” cannot have helped the Longsight-born player’s cause.
Despite the breakdown in the relationship between player and manager Ferguson was magnanimous with his praise of Brown today, praising the 31-year-old’s commitment to the cause since his début in 1998.
“He was a product of the youth system and marked himself out from an early age as one of his generation’s most natural defenders,” Ferguson told ManUtd.com.
“In his time with us, he certainly became a favourite with the fans for his no-nonsense approach to the game and his infectious personality.
“It’s always the hardest of decisions to let loyal servants go. But life moves on and, unquestionably, Wes will get the chance to make a real contribution to Steve Bruce’s Sunderland and I’m delighted to be passing him into such good hands. Everyone connected with United wishes him a long and happy stay at Sunderland.”
Brown has always been one of the most naturally gifted English defenders; a home-made Rio Ferdinand whose talent was only ever limited by injury. It is no disservice to say that had it not been for one of the game’s most lengthy injury records Brown could have amassed more than a century of caps for England, and not just 23. He would surely have also made more than 500 appearances for United bar for frequent trips to the treatment room.
The player earned rave reviews for early appearances at right-back, including the 6-2 thrashing of Brondby in Copenhagen during the treble-winning season, but it was at centre-half that the defender was at his natural best, offering the Reds acceleration over 20 yards, a fearless competitive streak and perfect timing.
“It was disappointing not to have played as much as I could at Manchester United over the last couple of seasons so just to know that I’ll be back in, playing, I’m focusing on that really and looking forward to it,” said Brown.
“Last season, I couldn’t get into the team and that was frustrating but that’s football and you move on. Sunderland is a big club and Steve Bruce was a big factor coming into it. That’s what it came down to really. When I was younger, I used to watch Steve and I’ve known him a bit as well so it was fine. I know a couple of lads who have been here and they say it’s a wonderful club and I thought this was the place for me to come.”
Brown will join former Reds Phil Bardsley, Kieron Richardson and Fraizer Campbell on Wearside, together with O’Shea. United midfielder Darron Gibson is also wanted by Bruce, although Sunderland baulked at the midfielder’s opening salary demands during negotiations. Together the trio were the subject of a £12 million bid in late June.
Meanwhile, O’Shea arguably has never possessed the same natural talent as Brown but won over United’s supporters with a vibrant début campaign, largely at left-back. The popular chant of “Johnny marching down the wing” began during O’Shea’s early years at the club that promised so much but rarely delivered in subsequent campaigns.
O’Shea’s versatility undermined his attempt to earn a regular first-team place, while also offering the Irishman a longevity at Old Trafford that bemused many fans. The player appeared across the back-four, in central midfield and even in goal during more than a decade at the club.
“John has been a solid, consistent part of Manchester United’s squad for well over a decade which goes to show the fantastic pedigree of player we have signed,” claimed Bruce on Thursday.
“He is a wonderful professional both on and off the field and his wealth of experience and versatility will be great attributes for us. I’m delighted with the players we’ve been able to secure ahead of the new season.”
Allowing Brown and O’Shea to move on for relatively modest fees is part of an unwritten Old Trafford policy of rewarding loyalty with minimal barriers for the players involved. The reward: long-term security at Sunderland that would not have been available at Old Trafford.
Supporters and ex-colleagues will wish the pair the best, while room has been made in Ferguson’s squad for younger players to come through.