Friday 24 November 2017

Daniel McDonnell: Class of old Manchester United pros is permanent

Daniel McDonnell pictured with former Manchester United players Clayton Blackmore, Neil Webb, Viv Anderson, Dion Dublin and Frank Stapleton
Daniel McDonnell pictured with former Manchester United players Clayton Blackmore, Neil Webb, Viv Anderson, Dion Dublin and Frank Stapleton
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE 57-year-old bearing down in my direction with the ball at his feet makes his intentions loud and clear for the sake of the audience.

"Through the legs," he shouts and, before a reaction is possible, he justifies the confidence by perfectly executing the nutmeg and finding the back of the net.

Viv Anderson wheels away in laughter. At first, this writer feels only humiliation at being so successfully embarrassed by a man who is 26 years older and three years away from eligibility for a bus pass back in his native England.

On mature reflection, the positive spin on the ignominy is that the astropark joker has two European Cup medals from a glorious spell at Nottingham Forest, 30 England caps and was Alex Ferguson's first signing at Manchester United. In short, a step above the average opponent in the weekly five-a-side.

The stage was the Sportsco facility in Ringsend last Tuesday, a Setanta event which brought together five ex-United players for a kickabout with a media selection ahead of the TV station's coverage of forthcoming Red Devils fixtures.

Anderson was joined by Dion Dublin, Clayton Blackmore, Neil Webb and Ireland's own Frank Stapleton for a match that, at various intervals, attracted curious glances from neighbouring courts. The TV cameras rarely make their way into a world that is often populated by office workers on a lunchtime break.

It was an education to spend time on the same pitch as players who operated at the highest level.

Stapleton (57) and Anderson enjoyed more sustained success across their career, but Dublin (44), Blackmore (49) and Webb (50) were no slouches at their peak, even if they are unlikely to feature in debates around the greatest players to grace Old Trafford.

Certainly, they showed enough in their brief cameo to demonstrate they remain many tiers above the average hacker and, damningly, their fitness shone in the final quarter of their good-natured battle with a team of hapless 20 and 30-somethings.

These promotional opportunities give them a chance to stretch their legs on a regular basis. For the retired footballer, the legends circuit can be lucrative; the cachet of being an ex-player of a top Premier League team opens doors.

The 'Masters' circuit has expanded to Asia with a big tournament coming up in Singapore next month, a renewal of last year's event in Brunei and Malaysia. For their troubles, each participating player can pocket between £2,000 to £3,000 a head, with a free holiday with some old mates thrown in on top of the bargain.

Some former pros need that circuit to make a living given the uncertainty that greets them when they reach the end, a vacuum that has brought deep financial problems to players of their generation and below.

Between them, Wednesday's quintet have experienced different sides of the afterlife.

Anderson runs a match events company along with working as an FA Goodwill Ambassador; Blackmore is on the staff of the Manchester United Academy; while Stapleton, as we know, works as a pundit and a scout for the FAI. Dublin, who retains a sharp eye for goal, manages a band which is fronted by ex-Irish underage international John Burns, who spent time with Nottingham Forest and Bristol City.

Webb, remembered for his struggles following his big move to United from Nottingham Forest, has embarked on a more interesting journey.

Back in 2004, it emerged that he had taken a job as a postman in his hometown of Reading, a tale which drew a mixture of sympathy and derision. The perception of the modern footballer is such that pictures of an ex-England international doing a 'normal' job drew a reaction comparable with the novelty value of a circus act.

He was a tad perplexed, as evidenced by his response when it became front-page news. "It's good exercise and I'm home by lunch. What else do people expect me to do?" he asked.

Webb, who has spent the last 18 months working for Harrods in a distribution warehouse, played in two major tournaments and provided the winning pass in an FA Cup final, among other honours.

A player who achieved that today would earn enough to retire at 35 without a care in the world, although the stats would suggest that gambling and other bad investments will still land a fair percentage in bother.

The difference is that pride forces the majority to cover it up whereas Webb comes across as a humble, down-to-earth character.

While Anderson and Dublin performed for the gallery, he was the quietest of the midweek visitors, politely offering a few thoughts on his own experience of Manchester derbies while sipping a pint and explaining that he'd have to work on Saturday because of his Irish holiday. "I hate that because it means I miss the footie," he said.

Without wishing to be schmaltzy, there was something poignant about his sincerity. He is the man on the street now, but there was a point towards the end of our lopsided encounter when the old boys turned it on for a few minutes and strung a succession of passes together without messing, a brief reminder of their pedigree.

They may not all hold onto the trappings, but there are some things they'll never lose.

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