Manchester City were unlucky to lose Ryan Giggs to Manchester United. Danny Welbeck too? That’s careless!
To lose one might be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. Manchester City had Ryan Giggs in their youth team for two years but ended up losing him to Manchester United at 14 years-old.
Some 11 years later they let another one slip through their fingers. It was just before Christmas in 1998 and City’s youth coaches decided that the eight-year-old Danny Nii Tackie Mensah Welbeck was not for them. By the New Year he was with United.
“They custard pied me!” Welbeck said of his City rejection.
His face can only hold mock indignation for a second before dissolving into a laugh that resounds around United’s academy building. He can see the funny side now, of course, but back then his father, Victor, thought it best to hide City’s rejection. It was hardly good for the festive spirit.
“My dad didn’t tell me at first,” he said. “I was only a little kid at the time and he didn’t want to tell me anything bad just before Christmas. Straight after Christmas I played in a tournament for my local side, Fletcher Moss, and that’s where United picked me up. I went for a trial with them and have never looked back since.
“My dad told me after I had signed for Manchester United what had happened with Manchester City. It’s a challenge to you, you just want to do better. I was always a United fan anyway.”
When Welbeck joined them, United were halfway through their treble-winning season and Giggs was the idol of a generation of young players, scoring one of the most memorable goals of his career as he dribbled round half the Arsenal team in the FA Cup semi-final. City, meanwhile, were fighting their way out of the third tier.
City have come a long way since and local rivalry has been deepened by their coming into direct competition with their neighbours. As if the title race was not thrilling enough, there is that potentially decisive Manchester derby to look forward to on April 30. As the only born-and-bred Mancunian to have played in the last derby, Welbeck, 21, is better placed than most to take the febrile football pulse of the city.
“You do get a special feeling being from here. Growing up in the city, I knew a lot of City and United fans and you do get a bit of grief sometimes. But it’s all friendly banter to be fair and I don’t think anyone wishes anything bad on you. Being a Manchester lad, coming to the derby games there is that extra bit of excitement. You just relish it.”
Welbeck is from Longsight, south-east of Manchester city centre and just over four miles from Old Trafford. It has a history of gang warfare and in the run up to the Commonwealth Games in 2002, at the height of fights over drug territory, you could buy a T-shirt at local market stalls with a picture of a chalk outline above the phrase ‘Welcome to Longsight’.
“Yeah, it was pretty rough,” Welbeck said. “But where we lived on our estate, everybody knew each other. It was a fun-loving community. Because you are so young, you are probably immune to it. You don’t really know what is going on around you that much. But you are streetwise, you know what to do in certain situations and that has helped me through life.”
He was also sheltered by a close family. Welbeck’s parents emigrated to Manchester from Ghana in the late Seventies and became social workers who helped children with learning disabilities.
“They are kind, generous, loving people,” he said. “They work very hard and want the best for people around them. I just want to repay the faith that they showed in me. They always wanted me to work hard on my education but they supported in my football as well. It came down to doing what I love most and football was the thing.”
It was clear that football was what he wanted. At five years old he went out to play with his brothers and the local boys on Markfield Avenue. Living opposite the Welbecks were the Browns. The eldest brother, Clive, had trials with Manchester City, while Wes had been spotted by Harry McShane (the father of Ian McShane, the Lovejoy and Deadwood actor) and joined Manchester United. The youngest, Reece, now 20, would also join United.
“It does seem like a long time ago,” Welbeck said. “Obviously I was just a little kid. People that I was playing with there I still talk to regularly. Reece is still one of my best friends. We grew up together, we have come from the same stuff. Playing on the streets back then you would be doing things in the little games and you’d think ‘I’ll do this at Old Trafford’. Now it’s finally happening — it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
“I could see what Wes was doing and it was inspiring. He was going off to Lilleshall with England and then going away with United. It was really motivational. Here was a guy living directly across the road from me so I used to think ‘if he can do it why can’t you?’” Wes’s father, Bancroft, was the local football evangelist, ferrying kids back and forth to games.
“Bancroft actually took me to my first local Sunday side, Fletcher Moss Rangers,” Welbeck said. “He used to take us every single Saturday morning and then bring us back.” Bancroft died in February 2008, a loss felt by the community he had helped form. “He was a really pivotal figure in my life. After a while my dad more or less took over because Bancroft was doing it for so many kids.” Victor Welbeck loved football and encouraged his son, enthusing about the great Ghanaian players. “My dad always tells me about Abedi Pele.
I have seen a few YouTube videos and stuff. My dad is buzzing off him and I’m like, ‘Pele? I only know one Pele.’ Turns out there are actually two.” Perspective was always retained, however, and Welbeck had to apply himself in school. Attending Trinity CE High, in Hulme right by Manchester University, Welbeck got nine GCSEs, including As in English and Maths. Both his brothers went to university and he would have followed if football had not worked out for him.
Football did work out, though, and even the Almighty had to make way. “We are a religious family and my Mum still goes to church every Sunday,” he said. “There came a time when I started getting games on a Sunday so it was a choice between going to church and playing football. I think my mum knew what I really loved.” With his faith, his talent, his academic diligence and humility Welbeck has a lot in common with Fabrice Muamba. “I know him quite well from being involved in the England under-21s, we have been away together on plenty of trips. What happened to him, it is just something you don’t ever want to see.
“We had just arrived at the hotel for our game the next day, and I had a little nap. As soon as I woke up, a friend texted me saying ‘have you seen what has happened to Fabrice?’ I was oblivious to it. I went downstairs, and then Ashley Young told me what happened. It was something I couldn’t really get my head around. I was gobsmacked for the rest of the night, I didn’t really talk.
“I’ve kept my eyes glued to the TV this last week looking to see if there are any improvements and thankfully at the moment he is improving. I just keep hoping and praying that he is going to make a full recovery.” Like Muamba, Welbeck is a child of parents who had come to the United Kingdom looking for a better life (Muamba, though, was born in Kinshasa while Welbeck was born in Manchester) and, like Muamba, he had played for England through the youth ranks.
Welbeck actually made his senior England debut against Ghana in March last year. He had gone on loan to Sunderland for all of last season, a move that accelerated his development. On his return, Sir Alex Ferguson showed complete confidence in him, promoting him to the role of partnering Wayne Rooney.
“Once I came back I just knew this is a season where I could make a statement for myself and go out and play football,” he said. “It is the stuff I love to do. “Obviously, partnering Wayne Rooney up front is a big honour and I’d hope he would say the same thing. We just seem to work really well with each other. We kind of understand each others games really well. The bond is still forming and it is getting stronger and stronger every game. It can go on to great things.
It can keep going into the summer, too. The new England manager is sure to call up Welbeck when the Euro 2012 squad is announced at the end of May. “I would definitely like to be involved,” he said. “It is a major tournament, as a kid that is something you look up to. You want to test yourself at the highest level and there aren’t many higher levels than going to the European Championships.”
There are some big tests to come before that — nine of them to be precise — starting with Fulham at Craven Cottage on Monday. But there is no question that the biggest challenge waits at the Etihad Stadium at the end of next month. For Welbeck, it will be another chance to remind City how wrong they were all those years ago.