Former Manchester United striker Danny Webber opens up on his career, chipping Peter Schmeichel, playing non-league football, the Class of ‘92 and the late Jimmy Davis.
A year ago, I was at a crossroads with my football career. I was 32 and had done a pre-season at Walsall, so I was still fit, but I was in two minds about whether to carry on.
I’d spent my life playing. I was spotted by my local club, Manchester United, as a kid and joining them was a dream. I stayed there until I was 18.
I once chipped Peter Schmeichel with a penalty in training and he was so impressed that he chased me around the training ground. One job for the young players was to collect autographs of the senior players and Schmeichel used to sign my face with permanent marker as revenge.
At 18 I went on loan to Port Vale, where I was kicked about. I’m not soft, people from Longsight, South Manchester, like another Danny – Welbeck – are not soft, but I didn’t enjoy it. I told Sir Alex Ferguson that wanted to go back to Old Trafford, that I could play a higher level of football. He agreed and sent me to Watford to learn under their manager Gianluca Vialli. There, my game came on so much and United offered me an improved contract. I turned it down as I felt I’d get more chances elsewhere, but I did play three times for United’s first-team.
I played at Highbury, when my best mate Jimmy Davis made his debut. We were 19 and up front for Manchester United. Jimmy forgot his boots! He thought I’d hidden them. I gave him my spare pair. We got battered against an experienced Arsenal side.
I signed for Watford permanently and Jimmy joined me on loan there. The lads loved Jimmy; he sang a song as his initiation ceremony.
Jimmy died when his car crashed on the M40. All United’s first-team attended the funeral. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t think about him. I wore a vest with Jimmy’s name on and keep in touch with his parents.
By last summer, I was thinking about calling it a day. Injuries get you down, but then I asked myself, do I love football the way I used to do? And if I’m honest, I did. Iwanted to keep playing.
A year ago, I was asked to cover a game for radio between Salford City and the Class of ’92. Over 10,000 were there and I went to get a cup of tea at half-time. It was near the dressing room and Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes asked me what I was doing there. They quickly told me that they needed a fresher pair of legs as they were getting beat. I had a pair of headphones in my hands. I put them down, got changed at came on for the last half hour.
Gary asked me after the game if I was interested in playing for Salford City. We had a long chat and I told him I’d sleep on it as it meant dropping down four divisions, but Gary Neville doesn’t allow much time for sleep. He’d texted me by 6am the following day. If someone I respect so much was so keen, how could I not be?
The benefit of being schooled at Old Trafford is that I’m a team player which helps any team.
On a technical level, there are some very good players in non-league; the reason they are in non-league tends to be that they’re not consistent enough. Non-league is full of talent that has been released from top clubs, but maybe they lacked the mental toughness or concentration to make it. I was always told by Sir Alex Ferguson to concentrate for 90 minutes; make a mistake and it could lead to a goal.
I’m enjoying playing football with freedom to play. I get a bit of abuse from rival players and fans and it amuses me. You hear everything in non-league.
“Webber, you’re finished!” fans will shout.
“You’re only here for the money!”
I’ve heard some fantastic amounts of money that I’m supposed to earn and they increase with Chinese whispers. I laugh because they’re football fans – and so am I. The only time I’ve reacted is if someone has flown in for a tackle which would be considered dangerous at any level.
Aside from that, I love it. Salford won the league last year, crowds increased from a hardcore of 150 to 350 and as many as 1,000. We had 500 there for the first game of the season against Marine, from Liverpool, on Saturday. Man United playing on Friday and City on Sunday helped, but Salford are really active in the community. You see a lot of kids at games; you even get City fans who can see past the red owners.
The owners love it. Gary and Scholesy were there on Saturday, they stand in the crowd. It’s trickier for Ryan and Nicky to come so often as they coach at United, and Phil is now in Valencia but he was really keen last season and often at training – though the two managers, Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson, are firmly in charge.
Having the old United players there is an added incentive and pressure. Some of the young lads just have to get used to them watching, but we’ve done well and it’s good to see the club’s owners so committed.
We play at grounds against teams which are at the heart of their community. Fans walk to games; they have a pie, let off some steam and walk home. Manchester is renowned for its professional clubs, but there are loads of suburbs or towns around Manchester with proud non-league clubs.
We want to go up again this season and get into the Conference North. I’ll play as long as I’m good enough and enjoying it, a happy end to a long football career full of upsand downs.