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Monday, January 09, 2006

Neil Webb Interview 2005

The likes of Ashley Cole would do well to remember that not every footballer at the top of his game gets to stay there, and that the road to footballing immortality is littered by those whose star status faded for one reason or another.

One such player who had it all and then saw the tables of fate turn on him is Neil Webb. Though mention of that name usually brings United fans out in prickly heat patches as they recall his slow walk to China as he slumped off the field after being substituted in a crucial league game against Forest in the 1992 run-in, there is no denying that whilst Michael Knighton's ball juggling may have gained the headlines that day, the real story back in August 1989 at home to Arsenal was the debut performance (and goal) of Webb.

He had it, we felt, and looked set to end the Forest to United transfer curse and though United fans understandably look towards Webb's overall United career with criticism, the real shame of how it all panned out isn't just Webb's loss of form, but what many believe, not least Webb himself, to be the crucial deciding factor in how a career on the up took a turn for the worse; a crucial injury picked up playing for England.

We've seen enough serious and career affecting injuries (Gary Bailey, Steve Coppell, Remi) for England to realise how badly the consequences can be, and Webb, barely five games into his new career at United, was never the same player after fracturing his achilles. Whether the injury itself or the mental repercussions played their part, as he certainly came back far heavier, in remembering the forlorn figure of Webb as he sulked off that day three years later, we should not forget that without that break, who knows how history could have turned out for his time at Old Trafford.

It must be difficult bordering on impossible to cope with such a startling transformation in a career, and after reaching the top - United, England, a well known and what we'd now call 'celebrity' wife - the crash and decline must have been pretty traumatic. But it's credit to Webb that he seems to have come through it now, not overly bitter at how things turned out for him, now happily re-married and able to look back with admirable honesty at what went wrong at United.

Many players find it difficult to cope when pushed back into reality. I suppose having to be a postman, and now working for Reading's Commercial Dept, sometimes selling lottery tickets, is more of a shock to us who don't expect to see former heroes and United players mingling in the real world with us. I always find it a shame thinking how yesterdays stars seem to be looking on the outside into a big sweet shop of riches comparing the present to how they earnt and now live and the excesses earnt by todays stars.

Recently as I was flicking channels surfing - well, with no soft porn on Granada Men and Motors to watch anymore as it's gone shite on freeview I had to surf - I came across Footballers Cribs on mtv. The whole show seemed as though it was based on the premise of one massive v sign to us all, the supporters. The riches and excesses on show from no more than Premiership journeymen was not just extravagant but wholly indicative on how much the game has milked us dry. Be it Aston Villa's Lloyd Samuel - 'here's one of my cars' - to Shola Ameobi, a player who his own fans haven't taken to, yet still able to walk us around his 9 massive rooms.

If I were a player who missed out on these rich pickings I'd be incredibly bitter, but it's testament to Webb that he doesn't. “I would love to be in the position the players are in today. Although every era seems to say that.” To be fair Webb seems comfortable in his own shoes, but richly aware that, whatever the highs and lows, he was fortunate. “I enjoyed my whole career whether up or down. One thing I will say I loved every minute of it. I look back at my career with great memories and affection. All I ever wanted to do was play for my local club Reading who I used to watch from the terraces. Everything that followed was a huge bonus for me.”

Of course United fans still rankled about Webb's part in the title failure of 1992 may be keen to hear his side of the story. His slow walk off, in an apparent huff, infuriated Reds as time seemed to run out with every slow pace off the pitch he made, hindering our chances of a comeback in the game. “I did walk off slowly because I was annoyed and angry about being subbed. Because it was against my old team. The crowd was fair but I felt humiliated.”

Maybe deep down he knew how much the injury had affected his form, and admits he returned too early to that FA Cup chasing side of 1990. “Yes, I returned too early. Circumstances hurried me along because United were not doing well in the league but having a good Cup run. Also the World Cup was coming up at the end of the season. I should have waited until the start of the following season but I wanted to get back as soon as possible.”

But out of that came one of his career highs, the 1990 FA Cup Winners Medal. He lists it as one of his highs, and is keeping his silverware, along with: “My debut England shirt and cap along with my FA Cup Winners medal and my World Cup Bronze are framed and in my house. All of my other mementoes have been sold at auction.” And personal highs and lows? “Highs – signing for United and scoring my fist goal on my debut and winning the FA Cup. Lows – The bad injury and being dropped for the European Cup Winners Cup Final and not regaining my high standard and performance.”

His father was a footballer and he was following in big footprints. “My dad was a successful player for Reading and one of their top goal scorers of all time. It drove me on as a youngster to try to emulate my dad. Like I said before everything above playing for Reading was a bonus. I supported Spurs as a kid because my dad was Arsenal my brother Chelsea. In my heart was Reading.”

Webb still talks fondly about his debut, indeed it would be the one moment at United, if he had the choice, he'd relive again. “My recollections of that game are fantastic. Great day, great crowd, great result and I scored. The Chairman’s antics that day raised a lot of eye brows in the dressing room.”

The signing itself didn't go down too well at the time with Cloughie. Webb 4 remembers: “I was talking about a new contract at Forest and put a deposit on a new house when Alex Ferguson rang me and asked if I wanted to join United. End of story! The transfer was conducted while I was in Scotland getting ready to play for England. My agent rang me several times to discuss negotiations. I agreed to sign for United from my hotel room surrounded by four of my Forest team mates.”

“My memories are arriving to meet the manager and looking around the stadium was one of awe because you soon realise just how big a football club they are. Early days training was a lot harder than my Forest days. Then the first game of the season beating the league champions 4 – 1 and scoring. But I also remember suffering my serious injury only 4 games into my first season at United. At United my time was very up and down. Good start, bad injury, average middle, and bad end.” Asked to describe his time at the club in one word, he says “different”.

And how did Cloughie and Fergie compare: “Both driven to be successful but their styles were complete opposite. Alex was very intense where as Brain Clough was more casual but demanding. With Alex like every manager I played under if things were good they were good. If things were bad they were bad.”

Webb crossed swords with Fergie when he told Graham Taylor he wasn't really injured after Fergie had told him to say he was out for England. “I was substituted in the game on Saturday. I was told I had an injury but I told the club I wanted to play for England, It would have been my first game under Graham Taylor. Taylor rang me on the Saturday night and I informed him I was fit. By Sunday I had to decide whether to upset the England manager or United manager. I chose the United manager, it cost me my England chance and it also affected my United chances. Catch 22. I can never understand people retiring from club or international football if they are fit enough to continue. It is a long time in retirement.”

In the dressing room however, Webb got on well with his team-mates. “The atmosphere was tremendous, we all had a laugh and socialised together. There were no cliques.” Contact now is: “Only when we meet up for the over 35s 6-a-side games.”
As for United fans, he describes his relationship with United fans as “I think probably about 50/50. I got on great with all the fans I met personally. Whether at games or functions. The support they gave the team during games was fantastic most of the time. Forest supporters were tremendous to me until I left. Welcomed me back which was great. Both sets of supporters to me were an asset.”

Not long after Webb's slow walk, with the writing on the wall, his old club called. “I was delighted to go back to Forest even though people say you shouldn’t go back. I was disappointed to leave but had to, to regain regular first team football. Alex was beginning to bring in his first team rotation and personally I wanted to play every game. I felt honoured that Brain Clough wanted me back. Within a couple of months my second injury occurred, I could play no part in trying to save Forest from relegation. I was delighted that United won their first league title for years. You could call it an indifferent season for me personally.”

On United? “They are the biggest club in the world. Merchandise is fantastic. On the pitch they need to be winning the League or Champions League because of the standards they have set. It will hurt Alex deeply to have not won the league for 2 years. What the club has achieved since 1990 has been awesome but sometimes you cannot be great all the time - but I am sure it will return. How long will he stay on? Possibly one more year. If they end up trophyless in 2005 then his desire to win the league or Champion’s league will drive him on for next year. He will want to leave on a high not a low.”

As for Webb himself, he admits it's been hard since leaving the game. “It is very difficult to adjust to life without football. I thought I could play on for a couple of years but that was not to be and I left professional football at 33 years of age. At the moment I am trying to get back into the game as a coach at reserve or youth level. Or a scouting position.”
You may recall the SUN not so long ago 'outed' him as a postman doing the rounds in Reading. It sounds like a typical media stitch up. “The paper was going to write a story whether I was going to give an interview or not. No it did not come over well I thought. I always knew I needed to work after football and if I could not stay in the game then I needed to get a job in the REAL WORLD. I am not qualified for any jobs so I thought getting up at 5am and finishing at 12pm was the closest I could get to footballers hours. The story belittled my house, neighbourhood, my career and postmen. Tabloids build you up to knock you down.”

Obviously a hurt man, I admire Webb more for hearing how he coped with the downside of fame and fortune and facing the adversities when the bubble started to burst for him than I will now ever slate him for what happened during the 1992 finale. He's only human - though 25 years without a title meant we didn't see it quite like that back then - and in a footballing world where they are now so detached from us that many players fail to appreciate their position in the world, I gain respect for a player who realises his place in the big scheme of things.

Of course there are regrets. Jokingly he says: “I turned down the chance of buying shares shows how a good business man I am!” but in truth it's the turn of events at United that he, and we, wish could have been altered.
“Overall at United I did not show everyone my best form. The injury did not help, when I came back from the injury I was a different player. It was as if Alex brought one player and nine months later got a different one.”


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