With Salford City’s historic FA Cup run set to continue on Friday at home to Hartlepool United, veteran striker Danny Webber still relishes the prospect of coming face-to-face with a Premier League giant in the illustrious third round.
Having joined The Ammies last summer, the 33-year-old forward, who has already appeared in the competition’s esteemed third round four times with Watford, Sheffield United and Portsmouth respectively, is dreaming of meeting his boyhood club Manchester United in the next phase.
With Salford currently third in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League, the Greater Manchester outfit conquered League Two side Notts County in the first round, with Webber netting the host’s opening goal in their memorable 2-0 victory at Moor Lane last month.
Fellow fourth-tier counterparts Hartlepool are the side blocking Salford’s route to the third round, although striker Webber is confident his team have enough willingness and ability to shock their higher league opponents once more in front of the BBC cameras.
The former Premier League hitman spoke exclusively to Shoot about the club’s magical FA Cup run, what it is like to work alongside The Class of ’92 and The Ammies’ Football League ambition.
You joined Salford City last August, so how are you enjoying your time at the club?
“So far, it has been a very good journey. We got promoted last season and we have set off this season with good intentions. We are up at the top; all be it, our FA Cup run has taken a bit of distraction away, so we are a few games behind. But all in all, from a personal point of view, I am enjoying my football.”
You scored the opening goal in the huge FA Cup upset against Notts County last month. Was that one of the most memorable goals you have scored?
“I think the emotion of it was massive. I don’t think you expect to come down to Moor Lane, Salford’s home ground, and experience that sort of camaraderie and that sort of togetherness. So to score that first goal against the [Football] League team for Salford was a big moment.”
Richie Allen came on to replace you in the second-half, before netting Salford’s sensational second goal. How good a feeling was it seeing that go in?
“I had just come off with cramp! So I just strapped my calves up and put ice on them. Then a few minutes later he scored! So my reaction was literally the same as everybody else; jump up, not so much run, but hobble along to celebrate with everybody in the corner. The whole emotion of the place was just fantastic.”
Friday sees Salford face Hartlepool United in the second round of the FA Cup. You must have no reason to believe that you can’t repeat your first-round heroics?
“A lot of people don’t actually see us as underdogs, when we genuinely are. There is three leagues between us. I wouldn’t say we are confident or complacent, but we are very committed and focused on the job in hand.”
Just how big of an achievement would reaching the third round of the FA Cup be for a club of Salford’s size?
“It would be massive! Even to get to the second round, which we are in at the moment, is a huge accomplishment. Bearing in mind we have had to go through four or five qualifying games just to get to the first round. We are not thinking about the third round just yet; the task in hand is Hartlepool, but if that was ever to happen then it would be huge for Salford. A massive achievement.”
If you were to progress in the FA Cup later this week, who would be your dream third-round opponents?
“It would be Manchester United, for me. I grew up there and spent 11 years there from the Under-10s to the Under-21s. There are a lot of people I still know well at the club and it is one of the biggest clubs in the world. So for Salford, who are in the seventh tier of English football, to potentially be playing against Manchester United, or any Premier League club for that matter, would be a huge, huge thing.
When you joined The Ammies last summer, Salford were already being taken over by The Class of ’92. Were they a influential in your decision to sign?
“I think it was the influence because Salford, in all due respect, weren’t on my radar at that moment in time and I probably wasn’t on theirs. The reason that I sort of came down to Salford in the first place was chance really. I was doing BBC Radio for the commentary team when The Class of ’92 were playing Salford City and it was a chance of passing the dressing room at half-time, when I went down to get a cup of coffee, where the dressing room door opened and some of The Class of ’92 were asking me to get my boots on! So I came out in the second-half, played probably 20 minutes or so, and as a result of that, Gary Neville asked me to come down and play for Salford. So I slept on it, but sometimes you go with your gut feeling. My gut feeling was that this was the right thing to do at that time and I have enjoyed it since.”
What are the likes of Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes like to work for?
“They are very hands on, they are very involved. But not hands on with what is going on in the dressing room. They have stepped away from that and realised that they own the club and allow the football side of things to do what it is meant to do with Bernard [Morley] and Johno [Anthony Johnson] as managers. They let them make the decisions, but they set the standard from the top. We try and make sure that standard stays the same at the top, all the way down to the dressing room.
“Gary Neville is probably the driving force when I look at all of them. He seems like the one who doesn’t sleep and is relentless when he has a goal in mind, which is an admirable thing. Phil is equally as committed. When he was over here he was at every game and brought his family along, so they are fully involved. Giggsy can’t be there as much obviously because he has got his role as assistant manager at [Manchester] United; but whenever he gets the chance, he is down there. Similarly with Nicky Butt, he has a role at United as well. So whenever the two of them can get down to Moor Lane, they do. You can just see the passion coming out from them. They are not just there passively, they are actively taking a part in wanting Salford to do well. Scholes is a magician, isn’t he. As soon as you think of Paul Scholes, you just know how driven he is. He was driven on the pitch. He is driven for Salford, he wants the standards of us to be playing club level football in years to come. He has joined in one or two training sessions and he has set the benchmark for a lot of players that didn’t realise the commitment level that you need to have to play at the top. I remember last season, he played in a few training sessions and raised a few eyebrows with a few of the tackles that he was flying into. But again that sets the benchmark for the commitment that you need to have to rise up the leagues and he is great to have about.”
The Class of ’92 have high ambitions for Salford, wanting their side to become a Football League club within the next 10 to 15 years. From a player’s perspective, do you echo that objective?
“Yeah, I think at any football club, the standard is set by the managers, the management team, meaning the owners and the chairwoman. The standards are set there and if people don’t jump on board, then you are not a part of what is moving forward. I totally echo the fact that Salford City can gain promotion after promotion. It is not going to be easy, it is never easy. It is not a full on conclusion that we are just going to get promoted, there is a lot of hard work to be done, there is no mistaking that. But there is no reason why we can’t. The likes of Fleetwood [Town] have done it, AFC Wimbledon have done it. So the blueprint is there, but again, there is a lot of hard work to be done by everyone involved and everyone must be pulling in the right direction. With the FA Cup and the way it has drawn attention to Salford, people have an affiliation with it and people want to come down and experience real football. When I say real football, I don’t mean that Premier League football isn’t real football, but I think it is football that people knew from when they were growing up – minus the big money and everything else. That is the aim, to get there, but in a more organic way. Fans are coming down and getting involved and you can only see it growing from here on in.”
Also demonstrated in the BBC documentary was Salford’s incredible support; from Karen Baird as Chairwoman, the club’s volunteers and growing fanbase. Just how crucial are Salford’s fans and community towards what you are trying to achieve on the pitch?
“They are as much a part of [the club] as anybody else! Salford is a community club, they are the foundations of what the club is built upon. And as you probably would have seen in the documentary, Gary [Neville] made a point of making sure that everybody was still in place from the very beginning, down to ‘Babs’, who is in the kitchen, and everybody else along the way. They are the heartbeat of Salford City.”
Everyone also got to witness the style of management duo Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley. What is it really like to work under them?
“It is good! It is a joy to work with them. Anyone that shares the level of commitment and level of will to win that runs through me, you can’t go wrong working with people like that. They want to win. They are passionate about what they do. It is a joy to be alongside and you can only expect good things off the back of that because everything is built upon work ethic. Off the back of that, we also have our creativity in the team and our togetherness. But we have the core because of those two and because of what is set from the top. They have been fantastic so far.”
You must have been scared at times? Have you ever stood up and fought back against them?
“I have never been scared. There is nothing to be scared of! Passion runs through everybody, the same will to win runs through them as it runs through me. So there is nothing to be scared of, it is just a case of them demanding things and they demand it from everybody. They demand high standards. I keep echoing the word standards, but I suppose that is what runs throughout Salford. But there is no reason for anybody to be scared. It is just a case of going out there, playing your football, us doing as well as we can for them and them doing as well as they can for us.”
You are currently third in the Northern Premier League, with three games in hand. You must be pretty confident of securing back-to-back promotions?
“Yeah we are confident because of how we operate. But there is a fine line between confidence and complacency. We are not complacent. We were beaten by Grantham [Town] recently and they were the better side. That was probably one of our lowest points of the season, but they beat us fair and square and it is up to us now to take stock of that and make sure that when we are moving forward that we are confident and not complacent.”
As you’ve already mentioned, you started out at Manchester United and made three first-team appearances for them. What was that experience like?
“I think you only realise how big it is when you are looking back. At the time, it was what you saw as progress from the Under-10s, to Under-11s and Under-12s before you get into the youth team and reserve teams. So it seemed like a natural progression. But it is very difficult to get there and stay there, especially back then with the team that was winning trebles, doubles and scoring freely. So it was very difficult to get a game in United’s first-team back then. But I remember it as if it were yesterday. People say your career flies by and it definitely does. But there are certain memories that stick in your mind, that being one of them, that will never leave you.”
You turned down a new deal at Old Trafford when you were 21-years-old because you wanted first-team football. How difficult was that decision to make?
“I’m a Mancunian and a United fan, so when you have grown up somewhere, it was not necessarily the leaving of the club, it was the people that you leave behind. I remember going to say bye to the laundry ladies and it choked me a little bit! I was 21; I was living quickly and getting on with my life, but it choked me saying goodbye to people because I had been there all of my life, really. So it was a decision that you sometimes have to make in life and you just have to deal with the lump in your throat and move forward because you think it is the right decision for you. Was it the best decision? Who knows. It was the best decision at the time and you can only make decisions based on what you are thinking. My dad and I had always said that if I got to 21 and I wasn’t playing first-team football consistently, then I needed to forge a career for myself because too many players fall by the way side, trying to hang onto their ideal or dream and it is not realistic. I realised that there were some top class strikers in front of me and that I needed to go and forge my own career and my own identity in the game.”
You are now 33, so how long do you plan to keep playing football?
“As long as my body allows me, because it is already telling me some days that it is not very happy! So as long as I am enjoying it and that my body doesn’t feel like it really doesn’t want to do it. There are days when I wake up now, with your body not being what it used to when you were 21. I have had a lot of operations, a lot of injuries throughout my career, so they do take their toll and some days I do feel it more than others. So I take it day-by-day and I just enjoy the game of football for what it is.”
When you decide to hang up your boots, what is next for Danny Webber?
“You know what, I am very open minded. Very, very open minded. I think the things that appeal to me right now, probably won’t appeal to me in two or three years’ time. But what appeals to me right now is that I am an agent. I am starting to represent players, helping them with their careers. I am as hands on as they want me to be really, but I have a lot of experience to draw up upon, both good and bad. I see the pitfalls. I also see the good times and I know how to help maintain them. Inside and outside the game, there are a lot of pitfalls as well. But I am here to help people. I still have a competitive edge in me, so I enjoy the agency side of things. It is just a different dynamic of football which enables me to still be out there and be competitive and make sure that I can help other people.”