This interview first appeared in the April edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
the big interview
Danny’s Ghanaian parents always made it clear to him that his education was important, and he would challenge himself to compete with his high-achieving older brothers academically.
He would also compete with them physically, joining in with their regular games of street football, but the biggest challenge came from the three older lads who lived behind the Manchester United door across the road: Clive, Reece and Wes Brown.
For 365 days a year, the Welbecks would face off against the Browns, with Wes, then a Manchester United trainee, joining in when he could. The boys would use two walls either side of their road as goalposts and the way the ball bounced off the kerbs helped Danny’s first touch become as assured as it is today.
“Growing up with two older brothers there are obviously positive and negative sides to it,” the 26 year old begins. “But I think in football I was definitely influenced by them and people around me, playing football every single day on the streets and just having a kick about. That’s what made me happy when I was younger and it’s still what makes me happy today.
“As a kid, it was just something I loved to do and as soon as I got home from wherever it may be. I was just straight out, back outside on the streets, playing with my brothers and my friends and those were good times. At that time you don’t think too much ahead, you just take each day as it comes and you just want to play football.
“Even now, you’ve really got to enjoy playing football and I think that’s when a lot of us are at our happiest, when we’ve got the ball at our feet. Back in the day, there were little games like Wembley, longies and stuff like that. And it’s something that you can look back on and smile about because you had such a laugh with your closest friends.”
For much of his youth, that’s all football was for Danny: fun.
But seeing Wes go away to Lilleshall’s Centre of Excellence and hearing his stories about training with Manchester United left Danny wanting more.
Fortunately, Wes’ dad, Bancroft, had noticed Danny’s natural talent and determination, and soon started taking him to Fletcher Moss Rangers with Reece on Sunday mornings. There, on that large field flanked by the snaking River Mersey, the boys would develop their skills and dream of being the next footballers to follow Brown’s path from Longsight to Old Trafford.
Back then, even they wouldn’t have believed you if you had told them they would both make it in the game. It is rare that three youngsters from the same area get given the chance at a Premier League academy, let alone the same street, but they have not been Fletcher Moss Rangers’ only success stories – and they certainly won’t be the last. Cameron Stewart and Kyle Bartley were both in Danny’s age group, while Ravel Morrison, Tyler Blackett and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have each run out at Old Trafford in the past few seasons.
Alongside Danny, though, Fletcher Moss Rangers’ most famous son is Marcus Rashford who, like our striker, spent his formative years kicking a ball around on Merseybank playing fields.
“Fletcher Moss have produced quite a lot of players in the past and others went through the same place,” Danny explains. “There were a whole lot of players at Manchester United and Manchester City that have come from that local side.
“City in particular have always had a good youth setup. When it came to derby day when I played for Manchester United’s academy sides, it was always a tough test because they've always had good youth teams. They’ve produced a lot of players themselves so there were always players from all over England really, going to both academies in Manchester.”
Like Rashford, Danny was rejected after having trials on the Blue side of Manchester, but City’s loss proved to be United’s gain.
The striker was spotted by the club’s scouts during a tournament with Fletcher Moss and soon joined their academy, regularly impressing coaches with his ability to play above his age group.
“That’s because of the practise that I had before, playing on the streets with my older brothers and their friends,” he says. “You get used to playing against people that are physically stronger than you, so once I was playing with my age group I probably did find it a bit easier.
“Then you make that step up and it’s another level of intensity. At that age you just want to get on the pitch and you don’t think about that stuff, you just want to play football and enjoy it. It was just normal for me to play against people who were older than me, and that’s why I would keep playing in the older age groups and keep progressing at United.
“One year we went the whole season winning every single game. That was a massive achievement and I think that was at under-14s or under-13s. From there, that’s when it starts to get that little bit more serious and you start looking forward to the scholarship years.
“It was a challenge but a good one and, once you sign your scholarship, that’s when you start directing every single piece of focus on becoming a professional footballer.”
Despite focusing on football, Danny did not let his new status as a Premier League scholar get in the way of his school life. In fact, he was so modest about his footballing achievements that he even refused to tell an angry teacher that the real reason he couldn’t sprint 200 metres in a PE lesson was because he was playing in the FA Youth Cup semi-final later that evening.
Upon hearing this, a number of his class headed to Old Trafford after school to support him. But who were Manchester United’s opponents on that night 10 years ago? You guessed it: Arsenal.
“That’s crazy,” Danny laughs. “Ten years... wow. It doesn’t feel like 10 years at all. I was just speaking with Gibbo and Ox about it not long ago, and we were talking about Gibbo being a flying left winger and how I hated coming up against him. It was mad.
“We knew everything about their team and they knew everything about ours. I was only 15 and Gibbo was a year older. It was a mad time and back then me and Gibbo disliked each other. We played against each other and I thought, ‘I don’t like this guy’, but now we’re proper close and really good friends. It’s crazy how things change.
“We definitely would have clashed because I was playing right wing and Gibbo was playing left wing. Maybe I was doubling up with the full back and he was doing the same with me, but I do remember the goal at the Emirates that Gibbo scored. It came down my side and I thought, ‘I can’t be having that’. Then after the game you analyse the match with the youth-team manager and go through everything. I was thinking, ‘That’s not happening again, I’m not going to let that happen again.“
Danny need not worry too much about his role in conceding that goal because, unfortunately for Gibbo and us, the striker would go on to score the winner in the second leg and secure United’s place in the final.
The then-15-year-old lined up alongside Ron-Robert Zieler, Danny Drinkwater and James Chester in that unsuccessful two-legged final – all now international footballers in their own right – but it was the Longsight lad who caught Sir Alex Ferguson’s eye and was soon invited to join the first- team squad’s changing room.
“There is more pressure when you’re in that environment, but I think that pressure is a good thing,” he admits. “It keeps you motivated and wanting to do even better. It keeps you improving yourself as a player so it is good. The games mean a lot more once you get into the professional side of football. It’s good, it’s part and parcel of the game and it’s something that you deal with and be able to take in your stride."
Danny certainly did that. After making his competitive debut in a 3-1 win over MIddlesbrough, the forward marked his first Premier League appearance by smashing a 30-yard strike into the top corner against Stoke City.
More than 140 appearances and 28 goals followed during his next five years at Old Trafford, and the youngster’s stock continued to rise when he played his first game for England against Ghana.
Now an Arsenal regular and an experienced international boasting 14 strikes in 34 caps for his country, those early days at United’s academy understandably seem like a long time ago, but not too much has changed in the past decade for the next batch of youngsters looking to break through.
“Obviously social media has come into play now,” he begins. “It’s a massive thing and back then, 10 years ago, it wasn’t. There was none of that really flying around. You can see it as a distraction or you can see it as a way of building yourself as a person and as a player.
“I think as life moves on there’s different things that come into play and I think you’ve got to try and take it in a positive way and better yourself as a person and as a player.
“One thing that will always stay the same, though, is that young players will always ask the more experienced players for advice. I took part in the game against Blackburn the other day for the under-23s and you see the boys in and around the training ground. I got a full on interview, longer than this one, the other day at the hotel before the game where they all wanted to ask me a few questions!
“But I’m happy to pass on any sort of experience that I’ve been through with them, just to give them the sort of knowledge that they want to hear. Some things they might not want to hear, but you still tell them. You’ve got to give them the truth and hope that they can take it in a positive way and make sure that they better themselves.”
Danny can laugh about the group of youngsters eager to pick his brain. After all, he was once guilty of the same thing not too long ago. A series of videos emerged on YouTube of the future England international learning how to turn defenders with Ruud van Nistelrooy, unbalance opponents with Ryan Giggs, shield the ball with Roy Keane, and finish with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer back in 2003.
Not only that, but the then-12-year-old – alongside childhood friends Jesse Lingard, Larnell Cole and Tom Lawrence – was also filmed learning tricks and flicks from future team-mates Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes.
“Rene Meulensteen was making a training DVD and I took part in that along with Jesse Lingard,” Danny explains. “He was a tiny kid back then if you look back at the video! Rene got a few of the first-team players to come and take a little session to show us a couple of tricks.
“A few of the players from the academy were there and there’s a few clips on YouTube where Van Nistelrooy, Solskjaer, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs are showing us tips and tricks. That was a great moment for us. To be youngsters and have first-team players coming in to show you a few little bits, it’s something that you can’t really buy in terms of that sort of experience. There are a few pictures flying about and I even get sent a couple now!”
So what advice does Danny give promising youngsters like Chris Willock, Reiss Nelson and Ben Sheaf?
“A lot of stuff I’ve been asked is about the experiences I’ve had in my career,” he reveals. “It’s usually things like how my first- team debut was, what the older players were like back then, how I felt when I trained with the senior team for the first time and how I coped with it. A lot of it is basic for me because I’ve already been through it all, but for them it’s something new and they want to experience the same thing.
“At the end of the day we’ve all got the same goal and that is to be in the first team at Arsenal. If I can help them in any little way, of course I'm happy to do it.
"In training you want to win every single day. Some of them may think nutmegging a first-team player will help them catch the boss’ eye, but it’s not the be all and end all. At the end of the day it’s all about winning and, if you can drill that into their mentality early on, it’ll take them a lot further.”
For Welbeck, that desire to win can be traced all the way back to those halcyon days of kicking a ball down Markfield Avenue with the Browns, and starring for Fletcher Moss on the weekends.
From those unassuming terraced streets of M13 to the bright lights of the Premier League, it’s clear that Danny’s powerful blend of humble beginnings and elite coaching has made him the player he is today. The first-touch practise on the streets, the professional tips he received from Manchester United’s biggest stars and the skills he has honed since arriving at Arsenal in 2014.
Danny is a product of his upbringing and, now that he is fit and firing again, there is no doubt that we will once more be reaping the rewards of Longsight’s biggest success story.
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