Danny Webber: We felt injustice, the authorities did nothing for Portsmouth. So players planned in-game Premier League protest to tell the world
Scorched by injustice and revolted by the dismantling of a once proud football club, Pompey’s players pledged to take a stand.
They had been instructed to suffer in silence – now was the moment to reclaim their voice.
The financially-devastated Blues were hurtling towards administration. To this day, they remain the only club in 29 years of Premier League history to suffer such an implosion.
Yet the Fratton faithful will be unaware how close a disillusioned team came to delivering a defiant statement on Pompey’s plight to a global audience.
According to Danny Webber, the Sky-televised trip to Manchester City in January 2010 was identified as the stage.
Demoralised by the club’s destruction, repeatedly late payment of wages and the frustrating inertia of football authorities, the dressing room hatched an in-game protest to grab the world’s attention.
How Webber wishes they hadn’t then suffered a change of heart minutes before the Etihad Stadium kick-off.
‘At one point we weren’t getting paid and the PFA came in and gave us lip service, that’s all it was. They didn’t do what a union should,’ he told The News.
‘Our next match was a Sunday fixture at Manchester City, against the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Vincent Kompany.
‘It was also live on Sky.
‘All these organisations – the Premier League, the FA, and the PFA – were doing nothing about the situation. Instead the players and fans were the ones that suffered.
‘As players, we were going out every game and putting our bodies on the line and felt injustice. Worst of all, the fans were there week in, week out and unaware of what exactly was going on behind the scenes.
‘That Manchester City game would be beamed around the world, so we had the conversation that, when the game kicked off, we’d stand there and do nothing.
‘We didn’t have a voice in the way that people have a voice nowadays. We didn’t all have social media to enable us to speak the truth or your version of events.
‘These days players can write and say whatever they feel like to get their thoughts across. Back then we were told to keep it in-house.
‘Avram Grant and Paul Hart were trying to keep everyone motivated, yet all of these things were hanging over the players’ heads. We were repeatedly told “Forget about it, we need to go and win this game”.
‘You’ve also got to remember that human beings are motivated by different things. So if three of your starting XI are motivated by money, they are not going to be motivated if not being paid.
‘I’m not saying there were players like that at Pompey, but the law of averages states that there will be – and if your money’s not coming in then it will be “Why should I give my all?”.
‘I remember Gabriel Batistuta admitting he didn’t even like football. That’s a raw honesty that most don’t want to hear, but I respect that.
‘Ahead of that Manchester City match, making a public statement was the talk of the dressing room. What if we did this? What if we did that? Everybody had a two penneth.
‘Your job isn’t necessarily to be the spokesperson, we were fully aware we had to play football. However, we had to do something.
‘In our pre-match conversations, it was mentioned about those players on the pitch not moving when the referee blew for kick-off. I was starting that game too.
‘We were so close to doing it as well, I’m talking even before we went out for the pre-match warm-up.
‘Then when we came back, the consensus was “No, we can’t”.
‘Looking back, we probably should have done it. It might have had a great impact, making everyone realise that we weren’t happy with what was happening to our club.
‘Pompey were disintegrating in front of us.’
Webber had arrived at Fratton Park in September 2009, impressing after two days of a scheduled two-week trial.
Earlier that summer he had been released following four seasons with Championship side Sheffield United, while a move to Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough had fallen through.
Without a club, the 27-year-old contacted former boss Sir Alex Ferguson, who allowed him to train with Manchester United’s reserves, while also maintaining fitness with Chorley and Stocksbridge Park Steels.
Then Webber signed a two-year Fratton Park deal – and four weeks into it discovered the full extent of the Blues’ developing financial crisis.
He added: ‘During an October international break, we were pulled into a meeting before training one day.
‘Everyone went upstairs to the canteen at the training ground and Tanya Robins, the finance manager, stood in front of us shaking. She couldn’t even hold a glass of water.
‘She told the boys that the club were having real problems and, basically, we were going to be paid late. That was the first sign.
‘You could have heard a pin drop. We were thinking “Wait and minute, we’re a professional football club in the Premier League”.
‘People overcommitting has become normal in the football pyramid, but, at the time, nobody would have ever thought that a Premier League club could be putting back wages by three days, five days, 10 days, or whatever.
‘We are human beings. It’s easy to say “Get on with it”, but certain people lived within their means, certain people were relying on that money, certain people were at different parts of their career.
‘Then we were deducted points. As if the job wasn’t hard enough to stay in the Premier League anyway, now there was this – plus cutbacks, we might not get paid, the club was under threat of folding, and apparently there’s new owners on the horizon.
‘Then you start getting paid from different places. No longer did it say Pompey FC when wages went into your bank, now it was a solicitor firm in another country.
‘Football is a game of margins – and it was affecting our focus.
‘As much as people think you should be okay to carry on playing football, imagine if a footballer has 5-10 per cent taken away from them, then you spread that throughout the team. You simply cannot compete in the Premier League and be at your best.
‘Then January comes around and Younes Kaboul is sold and it is blow after blow after blow. The lads put everything into it, they really did, yet, in retrospect, I look back and think “Actually, it did take a bit away from the players”.
‘At the time you think you are putting everything in – and you are. You think you can block those things out, but, assessing it now, it did have an impact on the football we played.
‘But the FA Cup run, now that was a refreshing distraction.’
Barely a week before Webber’s Fratton Park arrival in September 2009, FA Cup-winning heroes Sylvain Distin and Niko Kranjcar had been sold.
Come the season’s halfway mark, the Blues were bottom of the Premier League, heading for administration and forced to cash in more of their stars.
Kaboul and Asmir Begovic were the next to depart, both initially earmarked for Spurs until the latter refused, instead forcing through a move to Stoke as his preferred destination.
The pair had become first-team regulars under Avram Grant – yet now the team had to do without both in their relegation battle and FA Cup progress.
‘The team had been stripped of players from Harry’s era, so you are rebuilding – but you’re not rebuilding upon the same foundation,’ Webber said.
‘Younes was a big player for us, playing week in, week out, this was no bit-part player. Asmir was another.
‘Young players were leaving for business reasons, not footballing decisions. When that started to happen, we felt the legs were being chopped off.
‘People talk about loyalty from players, who are paid a lot of money, but look at it from the other way.
‘You could walk into work tomorrow and somebody says: “You are no longer wanted here, thanks a lot, you’re going to live in Glasgow. Take your family, remove your kids from school”.
‘All of a sudden, your life is turned upside down. We’re not stupid, every one of us is a commodity, and here was a period when Pompey’s best assets could be used to pull money into the club.
‘All of those things are going on simultaneously at a time when we are expected to win football matches.
‘Players were being told “You need to go, but make sure you’re ready for Saturday’s game, get your mind in the right place”.
‘Just because you are being paid X amount of money – which you are actually not getting – you are expected to go out and perform at your very best.’
Webber’s own Pompey career ended in May 2011 when released by Steve Cotterill after 32 games and three goals.
Sidelined for a year by ACL damage to his right knee, he had returned for the final month to feature in each of the last eight matches as the Blues finished 16th in the Championship.
The former Watford man subsequently featured for Leeds, Accrington and Salford, before retiring in July 2016 at the age of 34.
Webber’s injury-ravaged career consisted of 14 operations, a tally which included surgery on both shoulders, both knees, the insertion of a metal plate in his leg, and then its removal.
These days he dabbles in the media, particularly for talkSPORT and MUTV, although mainly focuses on his football agency, Autograph Sports Management.
He added: ‘My disappointment is I couldn’t show my best at Pompey.
‘Even Sir Alex Ferguson would say: “You’ve been so unlucky with injuries, son”. Yes, that’s just the cards you are dealt, but I’m not going to sit and cry about it. I accept the good and the bad.
‘Anyone who played with me at Sheffield United will tell you that I’d strap my shoulders every single day after previously dislocating them.
‘Taking off that military tape would make my arms bleed. I’d have a shower and it would sting, but you get on with it. I was taking tablets daily, just to remove the pain and inflammation from certain sides of my body.
‘People don’t realise you could be in ridiculous pain doing something you love.
‘I know there are times I shouldn’t have played, but I also know I needed to play because it showed the right attitude, otherwise the manager doesn't pick you. It’s a mixed bag of contradictions.
‘I dropped levels and eventually found the best way to transition out of the game was at Salford for a couple of years. Mentally, I was still challenged, you try to win leagues, regardless of the level.
‘It’s almost as if you are weaning yourself off your chosen drug – football.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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