Although pretty much all incoming transfers are interesting – which has made this a particularly interesting close season, of course – I must say that I haven’t got a clue whether Valentin Roberge or Modibo Diakite are any good at all. I would hope that they are better than the men they replaced (Matt Kilgallon and Titus Bramble), without the baggage, and probably cheaper too (people get wound up by Phil Bardsley’s salary, which is fair enough, but I bet Bramble and Kilgallon cost many more £s per game played than Bardsley has).
Having said that, I wouldn’t rank the signings of Roberge and Diakite as our most inspirational of the summer. Roberge, at the age of 26, was playing in a bottom half Portuguese side. Diakite, also 26, has played 83 games in his seven years with Lazio – and none at all last year (due to some form of dispute, I understand). Granted, on those grainy youtube clips, with a backing of strange European disco or rap music, Roberge looks very assured on the ball, and solid defensively, and Diakite looks like a big, strong centre half. Also, we needed to strengthen the squad in this area. However, I’m expecting them to be solid at best, rather than spectacular.
This is why Wes Brown’s re-emergence in the Spurs game was so welcome. I almost don’t want to write this, because it feels like tempting fate, after he broke down at this stage last pre-season. His performance, though, was hugely encouraging. If Diakite has been brought in to offer physical presence to complement John O’Shea, and Roberge has been brought in as a defender who isn’t frightened of the ball, it would be such a boost to our team if we were able to count on a fit Brown, who offers both.
In recent years we seem to have developed a niche in to quality, injury prone centre backs – think Steve Bould and John Mensah. I really think Brown is up there with either of them, in terms of the positive impact he can bring to the team. It’s funny – as with O’Shea, I suppose, I must have watched Wes Brown in loads of games for Manchester United and internationals. In that time, I never appreciated what a top, top player he is, in the way that was obvious in that awful first six months of his Sunderland career, as we slid towards the bottom three. My verdict would have been ‘decent player, good squad member, not as good as Gary Neville or Nemanja Vidic, gets into the England side because of who he plays for’.
Yet, yesterday, he seemed to pick up where he left off when he attempted a ridiculously high jump for the ball in a freezing cold, half empty stadium, for an FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough eighteen months ago. A defender who is strong, experienced, good in the air, a ferocious tackler, comfortable with the ball, and even likes to make entertaining bursts forward. Seriously, what’s not to like?
He is also exactly what we need right now. Not simply because of his defensive abilities, but also because he will complement O’Shea superbly - O’Shea only really moved to the centre of our defence when Brown got injured, previously he had been stranded at right back. Now we can get to see a top class defensive partnership at the heart of our defence as a regular fixture. It can be the rock on which our team is built, compensate for the departure of Simon Mignolet, and give confidence to those attacking players in front of them to attack, rather than track back to cover defensive deficiencies of the likes of Carlos Cuellar, Bramble, and Kilgallon. Building on years of It can also provide the mentality that Di Canio is looking to introduce to the club: it’s to Di Canio’s credit, I think, that he recognises that commitment – real, meaningful commitment – is about being a bit more like John O’Shea, and a bit less like Lee Cattermole or Phil Bardsley.
So, two years later than it should have done, and in the twilight of their careers, we get to see what may yet turn out to be Steve Bruce’s most important signings.
Of course, it all depends on fitness, and that can’t be taken for granted. Yet Brown actually has a much better injury record than is commonly thought (a lot of games he missed was because he had fallen out with Fergie, not injury), and he looked as fit as anyone on the pitch against Spurs. Anyway, what’s the point in wondering? The softly, softly approach to bringing him back didn’t seem to help anyone. If the new regime’s approach to fitness identifies whether he can make the contribution we want, or has to give up the ghost of his career, then at least we will know and can plan accordingly.
So, in an area where we looked like having to select an unknown with few games behind them (and none in England), we might yet get to see a central defensive pairing with nearly 600 Premiership games, over 100 caps between them. Oh, and 13 Premiership winners medals and 3 Champions League winners medals.
Instead of sinking into clichés about ‘being like a new signing’, or being ‘Manchester United’s most natural defender’, I’ll drink to that – while watching the rest of pre-season for starters – through a small gap between my fingers, every time he goes up – or down for a challenge.