Danny Webber: The Big Interview

Danny Webber scores a late equaliser for Pompey against West Ham in the Premier League in January 2010.   Picture: Steve Reid
Danny Webber scores a late equaliser for Pompey against West Ham in the Premier League in January 2010. Picture: Steve Reid
Plymouth Argyle's Remi Matthews. Picture: PA Images

Plymouth’s goalkeeping crisis ahead of Pompey clash

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As a boy, he grew up playing ‘Wembley doubles’ with his friends in the street, dreaming of the day he would play for club or country at the most iconic stadium of all.

And when he replaced Diego Forlan for Manchester United in a Champions League game at Deportivo La Coruna in March 2003 as a prodigious 21-year-old talent, it appeared Danny Webber was on course to fulfil that all-too familiar childhood ambition.

But while the Red Devils went on to lift the Premier League trophy that season, Webber – who had five England under-20 caps to his name – failed in his quest to make the grade at Old Trafford, or to ever run out at the home of football, which became something of a cursed venue for the striker.

A difficult but logical decision to seek a new challenge away from his hometown club ensued as Webber turned down a three-year contract at Old Trafford in favour of a permanent move – and football – at Watford.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Webber was unable to reach the heights achieved by his former team-mates but he did at least taste Premier League football, with next club Sheffield United.

Having fallen out of favour at the Blades, though – playing no part in their 2009 play-off final loss against Burnley at English football’s biggest venue – it came as something of a surprise when Pompey boss Paul Hart took a punt on the free agent at the start of the 2009-10 season.

But having all but abandoned his Wembley dreams in light of his Sheffield United setback, hard-working Webber played his part in a memorable and unexpected Blues march to the arch – only to see his opportunity snatched away in the cruellest of circumstances.

He said: ‘Throughout my career I’d been put on the right or left wing and had never been able to get a lot of consistency since my early 20s playing in a position I wanted to play in.

‘Paul Hart brought me in on the proviso to work my way into the team, play on the shoulder and try to get as many goals as I could.’

Things started well for Webber as he netted on his full debut in a 3-1 League Cup win at Carlisle.

He said: ‘I played up front with John Utaka and although they (Carlisle) were lower-league opposition, it was still good to get off the mark and enjoy my first game with my new team-mates.’

Hart was relieved of his duties two months later, though, as the Blues struggled in the league, losing their first seven games.

Director of football Avram Grant was tasked with keeping the financially-troubled club in the top-flight – a move that meant Webber was utilised where and when the new boss saw fit.

Webber said: ‘Under Avram, it was back to playing out wide for the majority of the time.

‘I didn’t mind that too much because I just wanted to play football and do well, especially as I was relatively new to the club.’

With a winding-up petition issued in December 2009 and debts of about £65m, Webber’s first and only Premier League goal for the Blues – in a 1-1 home draw with West Ham – was deemed irrelevant within two months.

Pompey became the first top-tier club in modern history to enter administration in February 2010, incurring a fatal nine-point penalty that effectively brought to an end a seven-year stay at the top.

Webber said: ‘I enjoyed that goal – I just wish there were more.

‘West Ham weren’t doing too well and had we not been docked points it would’ve had more importance in our survival fight.’

The problems at Fratton Park went beyond the on-pitch implications, though, as the club failed to pay its players.

But for humble Webber, it was a time to remain professional and keep things in perspective as he joined his unpaid team-mates in dipping into his own pocket to keep training-ground staff in work.

He said: ‘You do your best to block out the noise – it is a case of just making sure you come in and get on with your job because that is what you are paid to do.

‘We earned good enough money to go a month without our wages but there were other people at the club who I deeply felt for.’

Despite the well-publicised financial problems at PO4, the Blues were enjoying a fantastic distracting run in the FA Cup.

The competition acted as a silver lining in a dark cloud over Fratton Park, with Webber featuring as Grant’s battling side beat Premier League rivals Birmingham to book an unexpected return to Wembley – two years on from their glorious 2008 final triumph over Cardiff.

Sadly, though, for luckless Webber his chance to finally fulfil a childhood fantasy was snatched away in the cruellest of ways.

Less than a fortnight before they were due to meet in a semi-final showdown at Wembley, Webber suffered a horrific cruciate knee ligament injury at Spurs.

He said: ‘I was wounded because I’d just started to get into the team and had played against both Manchester United and City.

‘It’s horrible because you grow up wanting to play at Wembley.

‘You run around the park and in the streets and play the games ‘Wembley singles’ and ‘Wembley doubles’ – it’s always all about playing at Wembley.

‘There I was with two opportunities to play at Wembley within a couple of months and I had to physically sit on the bench in my suit and watch both of them.

‘I’d also sat in the stand at the play-off final for Sheffield United the previous summer – so within the space of a year I had three opportunities to play at Wembley and didn’t touch the pitch once, let alone get changed into my kit!’

While the relegated Blues fell at the final hurdle in a narrow 1-0 defeat to double winners Chelsea, Webber was already on the road to rehabilitation – a journey that took more than a year, before an emotional April 2011 return at Reading in the Championship.

Ensuing boss Steve Cotterill elected not to extend the striker’s contract at the end of the season, though, as Webber left the club with three goals in an injury-plagued 32-game spell.

He said: ‘It was a great feeling knowing that I’d completed my rehab and that my knee was fine.

‘But despite the buzz of being back on the field, at the same time I knew I was miles off full fitness – the adrenaline got me through.

‘I was happy to stay but I respected the gaffer’s decision,

‘He said to me that sometimes when you’ve been injured at a club for a long time you need a new picture to refresh your mind.’

Webber added: ‘The fans will always be in my heart.

‘I knew I was leaving in the last game of the season at Scunthorpe but they were all singing my name.

‘While the club had been through turmoil they understood my individual turmoil and supported me through it.’

Released Webber went on trial at Premier League QPR before enjoying brief spells at Leeds and Accrington Stanley, where he plied his trade against the Blues in League Two last season.

Now aged 32, he is juggling part-time football under former United team-mates Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs at Northern Premier League Salford City with his day job as a football agent.

The Mancunian is also an aspiring pundit – working for BBC radio Manchester – and has completed his Uefa B and the first part of his Uefa A coaching badges.

Webber said: ‘An awful lot has happened since I left Pompey.

‘I’m enjoying the project at Salford City and being part of something that is moving forward.

‘Rather than get to 35 or 36 and pretend I didn’t know there was a possibility of retiring, I decided to try to arm myself in as many different areas to determine which direction to head in after football.’

DANNY WEBBER ON...

...MAN UNITED MEMORIES

Danny Webber made three appearances for Manchester United between 1999-2003 – the last of which came as a substitute in a Champions League game at Deportivo La Coruna.

It was an amazing experience – it’s not something a lot of young English players can say they’ve done because there are even less English players making appearances in the Champions League nowadays.

It’s a fond memory from my time at Man United – apart from playing for your country, playing for United in the Champions League is one of the top career highlights you can have.

I’m glad that I did it and I’m glad I can walk away from the club with memories like that. I’m very happy.

...BATTLING RELEGATION AND ADMINSTRATION

When you are in a relegation battle trying to pick up some form and you know there is going to be a points penalty awarded against you it deflates you.

It’s like being a boxer in a scrap and having someone say: “I tell you what, we are going to put your right arm behind your back but still try to win the fight”.

...HEALING WITH HERMANN

Myself and Hermann Hreidarsson got injured on the same day (against Spurs, March 2010) and we probably did seven or eight months rehab together every single day, so we became close and bounced off one another.

He was a machine – we always used to try to better each other and come up with exercises to challenge each other.