One of the more infectious words in the sporting lexicon over this winter has been "ticker". It has mostly been employed by Aussie cricket commentators to explain the extreme turnaround in fortunes in England's Ashes humiliation: David Warner, Mitchell Johnson and the rest have prevailed because they have shown "an awful lot of ticker"; knock‑kneed Poms have lamely surrendered in the absence of any discernible "ticker" at all. If ticker is taken to be a shorthand for aggressive heart, stubborn courage and an absolute determination to prevail through adversity, then its presence and absence was equally starkly contrasted at Old Trafford on Wednesday night – and particularly in that wild final half- hour in which Sunderland overcame Manchester United. Indeed, you could begin to make the case that there has, of late, been something of a ticker transplant between the two clubs.

In the aftermath of that game, amid all the desperate Mancunian soul-searching – and universal schadenfreude – one image seemed to exemplify that bloody exchange. It was the brief YouTube window into the away dressing room, which saw the Sunderland players celebrating their unlikely semi-final triumph, in a season which began so dismally with Paolo Di Canio's authoritarian ego trip.

At the centre of that snatched film, its master of ceremonies, was one Wesley Michael Brown. It is not often that top-flight football these days offers an insight into simple joy unconfined, but you would be hard pressed to find a better example than in that footage of Brown, up on the treatment table, his knackered 34-year-old knee strapped in an ice bandage, spraying champagne around and conducting his team-mates in song.

In his long career in the other changing room at Old Trafford, Brown had occasionally threatened to dominate centre stage as he did so convincingly in that short film. It is a dozen years since Alex Ferguson described the young centre-half as the most gifted defender in England, at a time when Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell were in their prime, and were it not for a succession of injuries to back and knees Brown might well have made good on that boast. His United career, like that of his defensive partner and fellow exile John O'Shea, was a glorious one in terms of trophies but, even with all those medals to show, he was never quite the pivotal figure for either United or England that he once promised to be. In the 300-odd pages of the memoirs of Gary Neville, for example, alongside whom he played all of his 14 years at United, he is mentioned only once.

It is perhaps for this reason that Brown said after Wednesday's victory that being at the heart of things for Sunderland on that night meant at least as much to him as even the European triumphs and Premier League titles he had enjoyed in easier times at Old Trafford. Certainly his grin in that video suggested as much. Partly, of course, it remains a personal miracle that he is playing at all. The latest knee injury kept him out of the Sunderland side for 18 months, during which time Di Canio spoke to him about paying off the remainder of his contract, and specialists counselled about long‑term damage that an extended career might involve.

Players with less fight than Brown, faced with a seemingly hopeless relegation battle, a manager primed to self-destruct and many millions in the bank, might have been tempted to count their medals and call it a day. Since his return to the first team after Di Canio's departure in November, Brown has only done limited training in between games, in a manner reminiscent of that other legendary United reject Paul McGrath. Still, his reliability at the heart of the Sunderland defence has been a major factor in the revival under Gus Poyet.

In his autobiography Ferguson talks about the most difficult moments of his career being those in which he had to tell diehard servants such as Brown and O'Shea that their services were no longer required at the club. He refers more than once to such players as family, and blood ties were everything to him. There was of course always plenty of ticker about all of Ferguson's sides, who took their lead from the ever-angry flush of his complexion, and even if Brown never quite seemed at the beating heart of those teams in the way that Keane or Giggs or Cantona did, it was always crucial to their strength that the manager's pulse was felt throughout the squad.

In watching the match on Wednesday it was tempting to take that particular metaphor a little further. For all its money and baggage, football at its best remains a heart-stopping, sanguinary event. It is possible to point to many individual deficiencies in the Manchester United team that David Moyes has inherited, but you could condense all of them so far into a single word – they have been bloodless.

On Wednesday, it was Sunderland, led by Brown and O'Shea and through a goal scored by that other United extra, Phil Bardsley, who played with the ticker of men who had been through a lot together, and had the faith to prevail even when the odds were against them. Old habits die hard. It remains to be seen if Moyes can create a team through which the blood surges as of old. You suspect, however, watching the manner of recent defeats that his side is less in need of a transfer window than open heart surgery.

This article was amended at 11.35pm as it referred to Sir Alex Ferguson's last match at Old Trafford in May being against Sunderland, when in fact Swansea City were the opposing team