Ultimate United Articles
Neil Webb They Promised so much.....
By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
The latest instalment of this series focuses on a midfielder, of whom much was expected. Unfortunately an injury shortly after he arrived at Old Trafford halted his progress. Although he returned, and was still a good player, he never fulfilled the promise that persuaded Alex Ferguson to buy him. Neil Webb once had the footballing world at his feet, but now finds himself in the football wilderness.
Born in 1963, Webb joined his hometown club, Reading, straight after leaving school. He made his debut six months later, still only aged 16. He soon caught the eye as a goalscoring midfielder with superb range of passing. He was usually deployed on the right of midfield, although equally at home in the centre. Although Portsmouth finished a place below Reading in the old Third Division in 1982, they bid £87,000 to take him to Fratton Park. The following season saw Portsmouth promoted to the Second Division, while Webb’s old club Reading were relegated to the Fourth.
In Three seasons at Portsmouth, Webb scored 34 league goals, catching the eye of many top flight scouts. In 1985 the club missed out on promotion to the First Division only because of an inferior goal difference to Manchester City. It became clear that they would not be able to hold onto their prized asset, and it was Brian Clough who paid £250,000 to take him to Nottingham Forest.
At the City Ground, Webb became one of the best midfielders in England. He scored 14 goals in his first two seasons at Forest, including a hat trick against Chelsea in 1986, which saw him briefly become the First Division’s top goalscorer. In 1987, Bobby Robson gave him his international debut, which actually made him the 1000th player to be capped by England. He impressed sufficiently to be called up for England’s Euro ’88 squad, playing in two of their three games.
In 1989, Webb won the first trophy of his career and scored against Luton Town in the League Cup Final. His contract was due to expire that summer, and he had refused to sign a new one. In those days, before the Bosman Ruling, a club still held the player’s registration even when their contract expired. When Manchester United made a bid for him that summer, his £1.5 million fee was decided by a tribunal.
Move to Old Trafford
The circus that surrounded Manchester United’s first game of the 1989-90 season had nothing to do with the expensive outlay on players that summer. Despite having spent close to £10 million on Webb, Paul Ince, Mike Phelan, Gary Pallister and Danny Wallace, the big story was the takeover by Michael Knighton. The fact that United were hosting league champions Arsenal seemed to have been almost forgotten. When Knighton came onto the pitch before the game, juggled a football and smashed it into the Stretford End goal, it must have fired up the players. They thrashed their London rivals 4-1, with Neil Webb’s volley the pick of the goals that day.
It was to be a false dawn, however as United did not win another game until a 5-1 victory over Millwall almost a month later, losing three times within that period. By that time, Webb had suffered a snapped Achilles tendon playing for England, a big loss to Alex Ferguson’s plans. It would be six months before the midfielder would play again, coming off the bench against Southampton in March. He couldn’t have timed his return better, as United were fighting a relegation battle at the time. In addition to this they had an F.A. Cup semi-final with Oldham Athletic to negotiate. Webb showed United fans exactly what they had missed when he scored one goal and set up another to earn a replay. United progressed to the final at the second time of asking.
Webb started the 1990 F.A. Cup Final, and it was his deflected cross that found its way to Mark Hughes in the area, who slammed the ball home to put United ahead for the first time in the game. For the third time running, United found themselves having to play extra time, and Hughes scored again to rescue United. A classic match finished 3-3, and another replay beckoned. The second game was a much tighter affair, and just one goal settled it. Lee Martin found himself in the penalty area, on the end of a terrific cross field ball by Webb, which he smashed into the roof of the net.
Ferguson had won his first trophy as United manager. It also looked as though we were finally about to see the Neil Webb who had starred for Forest do the same for United. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Webb’s impressive form towards the end of the season has seen him selected for England’s World Cup squad. He only made one appearance at the tournament, in the third place playoff against Italy, but it showed a remarkable strength of character to recover from an injury which, even with today’s advanced sports sciences, can still be a career ender.
Having battled relegation the previous season, nobody was sure what to expect from Manchester United going into the 1990-91 season. A mixed start to the league campaign seemed to indicate that they were unlikely to be challenging for the title. A 4-0 hammering at Anfield merely served to strengthen that view. Neil Webb was now injury free, and enjoying his best run in the side since moving from Forest.
What saved United’s season was their run in two cup competitions. They reached the 1991 League Cup Final, where they would face Second Division side Sheffield Wednesday. The Yorkshire side were under the tutelage of former Old Trafford boss Ron Atkinson, who relished a 1-0 victory over his old team. It was an insipid display by the Red Devils, who seemed to think they would win by merely turning up. On the day, Webb was just one of many players who seemed more concerned with the Cup Winner’s Cup semi-final second leg against Legia Warsaw.
United made it through to the final against Barcelona, but this was where the first of many disappointments for Neil Webb happened. Having been a key player in the previous rounds, it was somewhat of a surprise when he was dropped for the final. Barcelona were one of Europe’s best sides, which they showed by becoming European Champions a year later. It seemed that in order to match them, United would need their most creative players, a category which Webb certainly fell into. Ferguson, however, deployed Mike Phelan instead and instructed him to do a man-marking job on Michael Laudrup. It worked as the Danish superstar had very little influence on proceedings, as Mark Hughes stole the show with both goals in a 2-1 win.
Webb has since admitted that being dropped in Rotterdam was one of the biggest disappointments of his career, but he was still seen as a key member of the squad. Having finished the season in 6th place in the league, and with a European trophy in the bag, United seemed well set up for a tilt at the title. They came flying out of the traps at the start of the 1991-92 season, with new signings Paul Parker, Peter Schmeichel and Andrei Kanchelskis settling in immediately. Kanchelskis’s arrival at Old Trafford meant that Webb was often moved into the middle of the park. Although he was comfortable there, it wasn’t his best position.
In the early months of the season, Webb contributed to helping United win the UEFA Super Cup, against European Champions Red Star Belgrade. Despite the Yugoslavians having the better of the play, Webb stole the ball off their star man Dejan Savićević and took a shot which hit the post. The rebound fell to Brian McClair, who willingly tucked it away.
It was during this season that Webb had a massive row with Alex Ferguson. The manager did not want to release any of his England players for an upcoming international. By this point, Webb hadn’t featured for his country for over a year, and expressed a strong desire to go. This did not sit well with the manager. The result was that Webb was hardly used during the title run-in, starting just two of United’s final ten games. He was also an unused substitute for the 1992 League Cup Final victory over Nottingham Forest.
Having led the table for most of the season, United surrendered the title to Leeds United. This was thanks in part to a huge fixture pile-up, however, many fans believe that Neil Webb’s creativity in midfield might have helped them over line, had he not been dropped. It’s true that he wasn’t quite the same player that he had been when United signed him. Something was missing, and it hadn’t gone unnoticed that he appeared to be heavier than before; his weight would be something that would trouble him for the rest of his career.
The writing seemed to be on the wall for Webb, and the exit door loomed large. Despite hardly featuring at the tail end of the season, Graham Taylor did select him for England’s short-lived Euro ’92 campaign. As many players after him later found out, once Ferguson has marked your card, there is no comeback.
1992-93 saw the beginning of the Premier League, and the end of Webb’s Old Trafford career. He made just one league appearance, as a substitute. He was used in the UEFA Cup against Torpedo Moscow, but this was mainly because of the three-foreigner rule. In November 1992, just days before United signed Eric Cantona, Webb returned to Nottingham Forest for a cut-price fee of £800,000.
If Webb thought that returning to the City Ground would be the thing that kick-started his career, he was unfortunately mistaken. He found that competition for places against the likes of Roy Keane, Steve Stone, Scott Gemmill and Ian Woan was quite fierce. Webb featured just nine times, as Forest were already battling relegation in what would be Brian Clough’s final season in management. As great a manager as Clough was, he was powerless to stop the club sliding into the second tier.
Forest would return to the Premier League at the first time of asking, and Webb featured in almost half of the club’s games as they secured promotion in 1993-94. Once Forest were back in the big time, however, Webb never played a competitive game for the club again. He would remain contracted to the club for two more years, but his only real game time was via a couple of loan spells at Swindon Town, and then Hong Kong club Instant-Dict.
When his contract at the City Ground expired in 1996, he joined Grimsby Town in Division One, but left after four games to join non-league Aldershot Town. In 1997, Webb retired from playing at the age of 34. He became a coach at non-league Weymouth, and later managed Reading Town, but both spells were short lived. One of the tabloids ran a rather harsh piece about the fact that he later worked as a postman after his career in football came to an end. He does, however, regularly feature on Talksport, and has played Masters Football for Manchester United on occasion.
Unlike some players who failed at United, you have to feel a bit sorry for Neil Webb. The injury that he suffered in 1989 effectively robbed him of the player Alex Ferguson invested so much money in. When he returned, although still a great passer of the ball, he had lost some of the sharpness that made him one of the most sought-after players in England. He didn’t seem to be able to turn as quickly, often finding himself caught in possession. The truth is that United never really got to see the player that had lit up the City Ground, and he was shipped back there for a cut price fee before he had even hit his thirties.
Some fans have cruelly mocked on message forums that, because he was earning a reported £5,000 a week at Old Trafford, he should have never had to find a job outside of football after his retirement. Admittedly, this is most than most people earn, even today, but the fact is that he was only earning that amount for a few years, and would have had expenses even back then. Although it is a healthy amount of money, it’s not like the rewards handed to players today, where players are set for life as soon as they put pen to paper.
Webb once admitted that he tried to stay in the game once he retired, but that nobody was willing to offer him a role. This seems rather strange seeing that he played under two of the greatest managers ever, Ferguson and Clough. Surely the things he learned from being coached by them could have been passed down to future generations.
The game of football seems to have largely forgotten Neil Webb. Given how good a player he was when he joined Manchester United, this seems a crying shame.
Added by Philip Meese on 15/05/2017 22:28:04