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Danny Webber has seen it all; from early days at Manchester United to playing without pay during a stint at Portsmouth, left, in the Premier League and now at Accrington Stanley in League Two. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images
Danny Webber has seen it all; from early days at Manchester United to playing without pay during a stint at Portsmouth, left, in the Premier League and now at Accrington Stanley in League Two. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images

Journey of former Manchester United prodigy who had Peter Schmeichel chasing him

For someone who rubbed the Manchester United great the wrong way with his skills, the former prodigy has also also got over the death of his close friend and teammate.

Only 1,101 were in the crowd to see Accrington Stanley, the bottom club in the English football league, in their last home game, when they picked up their first win of the season with a 2-1 triumph against Bristol Rovers.

Accrington, who are at the foot of the League Two table, the fourth tier of English football and the last fully professional level, are sandwiched in the north-west county of Lancashire between Blackburn and Burnley.

With a population of just 35,000, attracting bigger crowds to bolster their noisy hard core is a constant struggle.

Avoiding relegation looks like the biggest challenge ahead this season, but in Daniel Webber, they have a forward who has seen the highs of English football, and now, after a series of injuries, is confident he can help Accrington beat the drop.

Webber, 31, hails from Longsight, 30 miles to the south, the same Manchester neighbourhood as another Daniel, Welbeck.

Accrington is his eighth league club. Webber started out at Manchester United, cleaning Andrew Cole’s boots as an apprentice and playing in the first team three times.

With appearances for England at every level up to Under 20, his career took in spells at Port Vale, Watford, Sheffield United, Portsmouth, Leeds United and Doncaster Rovers. At Portsmouth, he went without wages.

“We considered not playing at the start of a televised Premier League game against Manchester City,” he says, “just standing still to make a point that players should be paid.”

Injuries have battered his body, the death of a close friend and teammate his mind.

“Injuries get you down and I’ve thought about quitting football,” Webber says. “I’ve got other things in my life, other interests.

“I’m not going to be one of these footballers who stops playing and then says, ‘Now what?’

“But then I ask myself, do I love football the way I used to do? And if I’m honest, I do. I want to keep playing.”

And he is doing that at Accrington, who he was asked to join by his former Sheffield United strike partner James Beattie, who is now the manager. Beattie played for Everton, Southampton and Blackburn Rovers, earning five England caps.

Webber is injury-free, fit and ready to flourish in the East Lancashire town famous for making bricks and textiles and for the loss of almost an entire generation of young men in the First World War.

“It’s the opposite from where I started out with United and it’s massively different,” Webber says.

“It’s like going back to your roots. It’s proper football – the arguments, the training. I feel like I should be paying for the privilege to play.” A child prodigy, Webber was spotted by Manchester City, then poached by United before he had signed a contract with City.

He then moved away from home to join England’s national football school at Lilleshall.

Webber’s progress continued at United, where he was awarded a three-year professional contract. He thrived in the reserves alongside his strike partner and friend, Jimmy Davis.

“I was convinced that I’d get in United’s first team,” he says. “Sometimes you might fall short, but you have to aim for the top.”

Webber trained with the stars, though Peter Schmeichel was not impressed to be chipped by a Webber penalty and chased him.

“One job for the young players was to collect autographs of the senior players,” Webber says. “Schmeichel used to sign my face with permanent marker as revenge.”

At 18, Webber went on loan to Port Vale, where he was kicked and did not enjoy it.

He wanted to return to United and told Sir Alex Ferguson that he could play a higher level of football. Ferguson agreed and sent him to Watford to learn under their manager, Gianluca Vialli.

“My game came on so much,” he said. United agreed and offered him an improved contract. Webber turned it down, but he did play three times for United’s first team.

“Twice in the League Cup, once in the [Uefa] Champions League,” he says. “My debut was at Sunderland away. I nearly scored.

“My adrenalin was pumping so much that my 20-minute spell seemed to last a minute.”

He played against Arsenal at Highbury, when it was Jimmy’s turn to make his debut, putting two 19-year-old forwards up front. Webber says: “Jimmy forgot his boots! He thought I’d hidden them. I gave him my spare pair. We got battered against an experienced Arsenal side.”

Webber left United for Watford. “I wanted to play every week,” he said.

“Jimmy joined me on loan and we did a full pre-season together. The lads loved Jimmy, he sang a song as his initiation ceremony.”

Webber went to Davis’s hotel for dinner one Friday night in August 2003.

“I left him and thought he’d gone to bed. He decided to drive back to Birmingham to see his family.”

Watford’s Terry Byrne, later David Beckham’s manager, called him at 8am the next morning and asked him to come to their stadium immediately.

“I was worried and wondered what I’d done wrong,” Webber says.

“I pulled into the car park and saw two police cars, plus the manager’s car. I saw tears in the manager’s eyes. The officers wanted to speak to me. They explained that a BMW had been found on the M40 [motorway] and they couldn’t identity the driver. They asked if there was any possibility that anyone else could have been driving the car. There wasn’t.”

Webber pulled out his phone. “Jimmy was dead, but I called him 20 or 30 times. It went straight to voicemail.”

The inquest into his death was told he was over the legal alcohol limit. Police officers then informed Jimmy’s parents that their son had died.

“It was a horrible time,” Webber says. “I couldn’t process what had happened and didn’t handle it well. I put on a face that I was fine. Footballers do that. You don’t show weakness.

“I wasn’t fine. I was living away from home and I immersed myself in training.”

Webber wore a vest with Jimmy’s name on. “Every time I scored it felt like such relief,” he says. “Until I did, I felt like I was playing with a rucksack on my back.”

Webber still keeps in touch with Jimmy’s parents. And he has had a decent career as a professional football, though he talks like he has not.

“I don’t have any silverware apart from an FA Cup runners’ up medal with Portsmouth.

“I’ve spent months alone in the gym, all to do what I love,” says Webber, who has had 14 operations in as many years. “My high point as a footballer is to say that it has been my career.

“Getting up each day to play football, and to be paid for it, is a privilege. And I’ve been able to take family holidays to places which my background suggested I couldn’t have done.”

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