GUS POYET admits Sunderland are counting on Wes Brown to maintain his fitness until the end of the season.
Brown’s outing against Crystal Palace last weekend was his 20th appearance of the campaign after the former England international had looked to be heading for retirement last summer, following 17 months on the treatment table.
Sunderland offered to pay up the remainder of the 34-year-old’s contract at the end of last season, with the centre-half unable to shake off the knee problems which had plagued him since January 2012.
But Brown has defied those predictions about never playing again to form a solid partnership alongside former Manchester United team-mate John O’Shea at the heart of Sunderland’s defence.
In the 11 Premier League games when Brown has been on the field - prior to today’s trip to Norwich City - Sunderland have conceded just 14 goals, compared to the 31 they have shipped in the 16 when the defender was absent.
Head coach Poyet realises Brown’s importance and is eager for Sunderland to avoid any unnecessary risks over the defender’s fitness.
“Wes has great experience, but as a player, he has a great understanding of the game, sees danger and that’s why he’s played at the top level and won trophies,” said Poyet.
“And he also has that relationship on the pitch with John.
“Sometimes you can be individually better than someone else, but if the relationship with someone next to you is not great, then you can look worse.
“They work well together and they are players we are counting on because of their experience on the pitch.
“We’re keeping an eye on him, and letting him have a rest during the week, because we realise how important he is.”
Poyet believes Brown, Fabio Borini and Ki Sung-Yueng have been the most consistent performers during his five months in charge at the Stadium of Light.
But having Brown back to shore up a notoriously fragile defence has been key, particularly as neither Paolo Di Canio nor for the final 13 months of his reign, Martin O’Neill, were able to benefit from the defender’s services.
“In terms of consistency, I think it’s between him, Fabio and Ki. They have been the ones consistent in their games,” added Poyet.
“But it’s so important keeping clean sheets.
“It’s been great for me to have him.
“When I came here, I don’t think too many people at the club were even counting on Wes.
“That’s why there were another four central defenders here.
“But somehow, whatever we’ve done, he’s been very important.”