Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

John Laverty: For Lamps & Co, the real world has gone forever

Remember Neil Webb? Of course you do. Neil was a more than useful midfielder with an explosive shot who played for Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and England twenty-odd years ago.

I remember his debut for United. It was against the defending champions Arsenal at Old Trafford in August, 1989, and he scored a terrific goal in a 4-1 hammering of George Graham’s team that prompted yet another false dawn for Red Devils fans.

But things could not have been better for Webb at that moment. He was 26 years old, and in his prime as a footballer .

He had just joined one of the world’s most glamorous clubs for £1.5m, and – as the 1,000th player to be capped by England – looked to be going places at international level too.

And he had a lovely blonde wife, Shelley, who seemed to be on TV every five minutes gushing about how wonderful it was to be married to a young, good-looking, famous football star.

Neil, who I remember as a friendly and articulate lad, went to the World Cup with Bobby Robson’s men in 1990 – the same year he hit that brilliant 50-yard crossfield pass for Lee Martin’s goal in the FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace; the goal that finally kick-started Alex Ferguson’s trophy-laden reign at Manchester United after a initial four barren years in the hot-seat.

He would go on to help them win their first European trophy since 1968 – the Cup Winners Cup – and a League Cup, before a series of injuries put his career on a downward slope.

Well, Neil Webb will be 45 years old in two weeks’ time. And he’s fat now, even though he does quite a lot of walking – as a postman.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a postman but, frankly, it doesn’t exactly compare with playing for United and England.

And Shelley, widely regarded as the first WAG, isn’t on TV gushing about how wonderful it is being married to an employee of the Royal Mail – because she’s now the long-gone, ex-Mrs Neil Webb.

Said Neil: “When I first started working as a postman, people would say ‘what are you doing? You played for England and earned a lot of money.’ And I’d say ‘yeah, but is isn’t going to last me until I’m 65. Work it out – mortgage, care, kids and tax.’” Not to mention the costly divorce . . .

Neil Webb is one of those ex-footballers who is still in touch with the game (he does stints for a Canadian cable channel), and who could be forgiven for being bitter at being born a decade or so too early.

These days, a Manchester United player and England international – for instance, Wayne Rooney or Rio Ferdinand – will know they’ll never have to rise at 4am to deliver a sack of letters later in their lives.

Those players already have enough to keep them in luxury for life, thanks to the huge river of television money that swept through the game courtesy of Sky in the mid-Nineties and still prevails.

And, most of the time, we don’t begrudge them it. They are entertainers who provide drama and pleasure; good luck to them, I say.

But, occasionally, you get a series of stories that make you think no, these guys are a herd of thoughtless, ruthless, disloyal, narcissistic, selfish, greedy swine.

A lot has been said recently about Cristiano Ronaldo and his comment about Manchester United treating him like a slave by refusing to let him join Real Madrid.

It was a football columnist’s dream quote: the world’s first £120,000-a-week slave.

Arsenal player Alexander Kleb has been getting similar stick by stating his desire to join Real’s bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona.

And of course Dimitar Berbatov is rejecting all sorts of financial incentives at Spurs to get to Manchester United.

These three, all of whom are already multi-millionaires, have of course been likened to pigs at the trough.

But, in reality, the opposite is the case. It’s because they have so much money, their only real incentive now is to play for their respective dream teams.

Ronaldo wants to go to Madrid because, as a young boy with nothing, he wanted to play for Madrid. Them wanting him – and being prepared to pay world record wages for the privilege – is merely a bonus.

Frank Lampard is the one who galls me the most, though. He who kisses the badge every time he scores, says he is in love with Chelsea – but only if they agree to a new, five-year contract. Otherwise, he’s off to Inter Milan to kiss their badge instead.

The irony is that Lamps, despite trousering nearly £100,000 a week with Chelsea, feels under-appreciated.

That’s because other players at the club such as Ballack and Shevchenko – who sometimes look disinterested and are more out of form than in it – earn, if that’s the right word, more money than Fat Frank.

With old Blues boss Jose Mourinho now in charge at Inter, you can expect a written transfer request from Lampard any day now, before he jets off to Italy and a jaw-dropping £7m-a-year contract.

Perhaps one of his predecessors in the England midfield, one Neil Webb, will deliver it.

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