BY CHRIS CLARK
Danny Higginbotham started his playing career under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford. He played over 200 games in the Premier League for Manchester United, Derby County, Southampton, Sunderland and Stoke City. Now carving out an equally respectful career in the media, I spent some time with Danny to talk about his footballing life so far, and Danny reflected on his Manchester United apprenticeship, finding himself banned from all football whilst playing in Belgium, the Tony Pulis Stoke era and creating a niche in football punditry.
What was it like playing and training under Alex Ferguson
It was a privilege, I learnt a lot. The biggest thing I took from it all, was how to carry yourself as a professional. You train as you play. If it was good enough for the players already at Manchester United, it was certainly good enough for me. As we were apprentices, we looked up to players like Gary and Phil Neville, who even on a Wednesday afternoon, which we had off, were still out there doing extra heading practice. Gary at the time was an England international, and that dedication left a lasting impression on me.
To be involved in training with those players at the time, and some of the matchday squads was special. I learnt so much in terms of the ability, work-rate and attention to detail it took to be a top level professional.
So I suppose when you were training, you were defending against the likes of Eric Cantona
Yes, and Andy Cole as well. It was fantastic. One thing you got when you went training with these lads was plenty of encouragement, and it wasn’t just the forwards. The defenders as well; Jaap Stam, Ronny Johnsen, the Nevilles, Denis Irwin. It was brilliant, you learnt so much from them. The main thing was though, these players were superstars, but they were so grounded that they spent time with us youngsters to help us develop our game.
In the mid 90’s football had boomed, but nowhere near the level it is currently. What do you think the main difference is between young players then and now?
There’s no connection now with first team players. As apprentices you could relate to the first team players, as they had come up through the same route as you.
Did you have to clean boots?
Yeah, I cleaned Brian McClair and Roy Keane’s boots, it was something you took great pride in. You’d want the boots to come in and be filthy because it was your task to get them looking brand new. You were so chuffed, you used to go home and tell your mates, ‘oh, I cleaned Roy Keane’s boots today’…it was absolutely brilliant. Then Brian McClair would chat to me whilst I was cleaning his boots. There was that connection, as he had done it previously, but nowadays with the apprenticeships abolished, the young players in the academies don’t have any responsibilities; they have everything done for them and don’t have to stand on their own two feet. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there aren’t any real leaders coming through the youth ranks. When you were an apprentice, yeah you felt like the scum of the earth, but you appreciated it as you went up the ranks. There are youngsters now who are being paid handsomely and they’ve never kicked a ball in the first team.
Well you probably know more than me, but they’re being paid say £10k a week…
Yeah they’re getting a lot of money. In the old regime your best contract would be when you’re 28/29 now it’s like 19. So at the age of 24, everyone is wondering why they’re resting on their laurels.
As a young player yourself you moved on loan for a season to Belgium and had an altercation with a referee that led to you being banned for a year.
Manchester United had a set-up with Antwerp, who were in the Belgian 2nd division at the time. We got into the play-offs and played one game at home against Turnhout and we ended up getting beaten, but it all turned sour; a few of the fans started rioting and that. So the next game against La Louviere had to be played behind closed doors and it was played in something like the middle of a forest. A lot of Antwerp fans were in the trees!
So what happened in the game?
It was 0-0 into injury time, and one of their players ran through, and he’s 4 or 5 yards offside. The ref and linesman have said play-on, and he’s scored. That was us more or less out of the play-offs, so you’ve had a year of trying your nuts off [for nothing].
And it’s just gone…
Yeah, it’s all gone on this bad refereeing decision. I was so angry I put my foot through one of the old school advertising hoardings which went around the pitch. Everyone has now gone down the tunnel, but I can’t get my foot out! I’m there for a good 2 or 3 minutes trying to get my boot out of this hoarding, then when I do, I walk into the tunnel chuck my shirt off and it’s like a warzone in there.
What it was kicking off?
Oh yeah it was a free-for-all, as we had previous with La Louviere from when we played them earlier in the season. Then there’s this photographer taking photos of all our players, so I say to Jamie Wood – who wasn’t playing at the time – we need to get this camera or this could affect the rest of our careers. So Jamie gets the camera off the photographer, then the cameraman pulls a knife on him!
It was a bit a crazy, but the camera ended up getting destroyed. Things started to calm down, but as we started walking to our dressing room, our goalkeeping coach and the referee were having an altercation and to all intents and purposes it looks like the referee is going to hit our goalkeeping coach. So, Ronnie (Wallwork) moves our coach out of the way, and it looks like Ronnie is going to grab the referee, so I move him away and usher him back into the dressing room. So later on that night we go back to the hotel and the club secretary informs us that he’s just received a fax from the Belgian FA to say that we’ve been banned indefinitely. I had no idea what we had done. So we went back to England and we had to wait until the report came out. So when it did I got a 3-year-ban in Belgium and a year in England. I was amazed, I hadn’t done anything. The first thing Manchester United did was appeal it and we went to the Belgian FA. Sir Alex came over as a character reference and he was absolutely brilliant. So we’re in the Belgian FA and I’m in the room with the officials who can’t speak a word of English, so it’s all getting translated back to me. The issue was that the referee was FIFA listed and one of the top Belgian officials, so everything he is saying is taken as gospel. The interpreter then informs me of what the referee has said had happened; Ronnie had picked him up by the scruff of the neck, and I had gone over and headbutted him. The referee then produced photos that he had taken in his dressing room which showed marks around his neck etc. I’m sitting there thinking this is complete and utter rubbish! The referee was saying he knew it was me, as he knew by my shirt number.
But hadn’t you taken the shirt off?
Yeah, remember I had chucked it on the floor, whilst coming into the tunnel. After that hearing I ended up with a life ban in Belgium and two years in England, the bans had gone up! Sir Alex also said after the hearing that if I wasn’t banned I would have been involved with the first team squad, as they were suffering with injuries. I thought bloody hell, typical.
So what happened next?
Well, the Belgian season then kicked off, and this ref’s first game in charge ended up as a 6-6 draw with some debatable decisions and he got questioned on live television by the head of the referee’s association. He said that he was mentally scarred due to the issue between him, Ronnie and me, so they sympathised with him. A few weeks later, he refereed another game which was 1-0 and he gave a ridiculous decision. He was interviewed again, and he said he was still suffering. So the Belgian FA said go away and get some psychiatric help; our bans were quashed and we were free to play from that day onwards.
The photos of the marks around his neck – apparently he got the linesman to put his hands around his neck to create the marks and the photographer to take the photos.
That is unbelievable…
Don’t get me wrong it was a horrible thing to go through, but to learn those things at an early age did me no harm at all. It was a horrible time in my career, I was having random nosebleeds through the stress of it all; it was a nightmare.
Moving on, how difficult was it to leave Manchester United for you?
It wasn’t, it wasn’t difficult at all. My time had come, I wasn’t good enough, I played 6 or 7 games and I was very grateful for that. See how many times do youngsters get let go and prove Manchester United wrong…Pogba and Pique are the only exceptions.
Sir Alex rang me one morning and said Derby were in for me and I knew I had Phil Neville, Dennis Irwin and Mikael Silvestre in front of me. I looked at it two ways – A) If he wanted me to stay, he would have said Derby have enquired about you, but I’ve turned it down. B) He just wouldn’t have told me.
My mind was made up straight away. What I could see is players who were at Manchester United who were 24/25 and loved the association with Manchester United and only played a handful of games and missed opportunities in their career. This was a great chance for me to play first team football at another Premier League club.
So you had a few years at Derby, and then moved onto Southampton, and they got into an FA Cup final against Arsenal. For players, did the Cup Final experience feel the same at the Millennium Stadium?
Yeah obviously it does, because as a kid, you always play “Wembley” and you dream of playing there. But take nothing away from the fact that it was still the FA Cup Final and Southampton had done fantastically well to get there. I felt like an imposter there though, as I had only joined in January of that season. I’m there sitting on the bench in the Cup Final, and I knew I had taken Francis Benali’s place, who was and is a legend of the club. The next day I tried to give Franny my Cup final medal, I felt as though as I didn’t deserve it. He refused it, but fortunately the club made an extra 5 or 6 and he ended up with one, which was a nice touch from the club.
You were in and out of that Southampton side, so you moved onto Stoke City. How much did the players revel in that “longball side” tag?
You know what, we didn’t care, we couldn’t care less. The first season in the Championship under Tony Pulis, once he got the players he wanted into the team, we were unstoppable. A good thing which sums up my time at Stoke under Tony Pulis is this; my first game was away to Southend United at Roots Hall, my last game was against Besiktas in the Europa League.
I was made captain in the Championship side and we were battering sides, by the end of that season we were playing in front of crowds of 25,000 and at that stage of my career it was the perfect club for me.
Well as a Spurs fan, I always remember Stoke away was an incredibly tough game
I remember our first season in the Premier League we played you, and we beat you 2-1 live on Sky. I scored a penalty in that game and the ball blew off the spot about 6 times! I saw something on that football pitch which I’d never seen before, nor seen since, and that was Gomes the Spurs ‘keeper crying.
Oh yes, I remember you kept on loading the ball into the box and he couldn’t handle it.
Yes, Rory Delap just kept on putting the ball into the area and he was getting smashed by his own players and our players. He just could not handle it, he ended up going off in tears.
As a fan, you know what your team is like, so whenever, for example Spurs, were playing Stoke away, you knew that Spurs wouldn’t fancy it.
We had an unbelievable team ethic at Stoke, especially at home. In our first season in the Premier League we finished 11 or 12th and no way should we have finished there. We won 2 games away from home – that was it. Our home form was a joke. We just bullied teams into submission. You could see in the tunnel that sides didn’t fancy it. The only sides who stood up to the battle were Chelsea, Manchester United and to a certain extent Liverpool. The rest of them just folded.
To be at that football club, at the time we were establishing ourselves in the Premier League, was just phenomenal. You stood in that tunnel waiting to go on the pitch and the hairs on the back of your neck used to stand up. It was just a cauldron of noise, it was hostile and the opposition players used to walk on the pitch, and think ‘what on earth is this?’
I played in all the major stadiums, but I have to say in those first two years in the Premier League, 28,000 at Stoke was fervent, it was ridiculous. You used to see opposition players’ faces go white. As Stoke players we loved it. We created a siege mentality, as we knew we were the underdog in the majority of games.
I remember when we played Arsenal in our first season at home, we beat them, and Arsene Wenger came out after the game and slaughtered us. That was music to our ears. It was the best thing to happen to us. It created a bond between the team and the fans. Like I said, our home form was Champions League qualification standard.
Do you think Tony Pulis gets enough credit for what he achieved at Stoke?
He certainly didn’t at the time, he was labelled a one trick pony. Now, retrospectively, he is getting the credit he deserves. I would give him any job at the start of the Premier League season, even the most unfancied side, and they would end up comfortably mid-table. What Tony is very good at is creating a fantastic dressing room. Whenever he signed a new player, the first thing he looked at were the characteristics of the player first and made sure they fitted into the team ethos. If a player with a bigger ego was brought into the squad, then he would put them into the dressing room and we would sort them out. That dressing room at Stoke everyone was a leader, if someone was hurt, we were all hurt.
I remember in my first season, Rory Delap broke his leg in the first half against Sunderland and we trailed 1-0 at half time. During the break the only thing the players cared about was Rory, we couldn’t care less about the game. Tony Pulis then stands up and says this “It’s horrible what’s happened to Rory, but the club will look after him. The best thing you can do is go out there and win this game for Rory.” We went out there and won 2-1. I don’t know many footballers in their career who are lucky enough to play in a team where you’re all going into battle with each other, it was an amazing togetherness. We used to finish training at 12.30pm but none of us would go home till 3pm. We loved each other’s company, we had great camaraderie. It was magnificent.
Unfortunately, you damaged your cruciate ligaments thus missing the FA Cup Final against Manchester City? Did you feel that was your last chance to play in a showpiece event?
I think I did. It was actually two trips to Wembley in the space of a month, with the semi-final as well. My third son was born at the start of the March, I scored the winning goal in the quarter-final against West Ham, we then played Newcastle in the league and beat them 4-0 in probably our best ever performance, and I scored again. I was on a crest on a wave.
So our next game is against Chelsea and it’s level at half time. Then, that second half is the most dominant performance we had against Chelsea; we battered them. In the last minute we got a corner, and I always used to go up for corners, but in the last minutes of games Tony always wanted me to stay back. But this time he didn’t, as there was a sense that we fancied this. The cross comes in, Cech misses his punch, I head it, and it’s going in but Ivanovic cleared it off the line. But I landed on a straight leg and Cech, when he landed, just stroked my leg, it was nothing. However, as my leg was straight, he sent my knee one way, then the other. I’m in bits, I’m on the floor in agony. The physio and doctor come rushing on and they have a look, and then all of a sudden the pain goes, and I’m moving my leg, I’m fine. I get called back onto the pitch and Chelsea have a goal kick. I go up for a header with Drogba, and it’s weird but the right leg I damaged is just flapping in the air, uncontrollably. I carried on for another couple of minutes, stupidly. I end up being taken off and the physio looks at my knee and says ‘don’t worry too much about it the moment, the only thing you have to worry about is it if swells up’. So I go to bed at night, and at 3am I wake up in agony, and I’m not kidding you, but my leg/knee has swelled up to three times the size it should normally be! So, I see the physio that morning, and I say be honest with me, what have I done? The physio says it’s your cruciate. First thing which comes into my head, is FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley, then a probable Final. It was horrible, and the next day we had the photoshoot for the headshots (when they show the team line-up) and I had to do it. The worst thing about the semi-final and final is that I didn’t want to be there, and it was horrible as I didn’t want us to win it either, I wanted nothing to do with it. But the funny thing was, out of missing the semi and final, I got asked to do some media work and I did Football Focus and some bits for ESPN and ITV. So maybe this is a reason why the injury happened, as it opened up another career.
Well that moves us on quite nicely, what do you feel you can bring the viewer at home. Are you more happy being the pundit or co-commentator?
I don’t mind either, but if someone said to me what do you prefer. I love co-commentary. I love to be able to commentate on games and saying things as they happen. Why did they score that goal? Why did that chance get created? It’s great when you can get into contact with the producer during the game, and say can you get me this replay or freeze-frame and then you can inform the viewer at home. I get such a buzz from it, and for me, after I do a game on TV I can’t sleep till early in the morning.
Because of the adrenalin, is it comparable to playing?
Not at the top of the career no, but as your playing career winds down…most definitely. It’s fantastic. I’m not in this for a bit of pocket money, it’s something I love, it’s something I want to do for the next 30 years, and I want to be the best. I want to be the best co-commentator around.
So you’re not interesting in coaching or management?
No not at the moment, what I have found is that by doing all this games, you see different styles of play and different formations and I have learnt so much tactically watching all the domestic and foreign leagues, that it stands me in good stead if I ever move into that line of work.
I’ve learnt more tactically in 1 ½ half years of commentating than I have in 17 years as a professional footballer. Because when you’re playing the game, you are concentrating on your role in the team. Now you have to get to know every single player on the pitch, that manager’s preferred formation. You need to nail that every time. So when you see two formations up against each other, you have to able to analyse which side is going to come out on top and why. This ability to tactically analyse sides then led to me doing a column for the Independent, which was every Friday, previewing the weekend’s games as to how and why they would be lost. It’s all about creating a niche for yourself. Don’t get me wrong I’m happy hosting programs like I’ve done on Talksport etc, but I don’t want to be a jack of all trades and master of none.
So the tactical analysis would be your niche?
That’s what you do whether it be before a game or afterwards, or for me as the game is happening as a co-commentator. Don’t get me wrong when you’re talking at half time or full time, you’re talking after the event. Whereas for me when I’m co-commentating, I don’t care when a goal has been scored. I’m not interested in the goal, I want to analyse why he’s scored, how he got the space etc. That’s something you can do right then. I love the here and now of it all, it’s a split second thing and it’s a great buzz.
Danny Higginbotham is currently commentating on the UEFA Euro U21’s Championships on BT Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @Higginbotham05
Also if you wish to hear more about Danny’s career, his book – Rise of the Underdog can be bought from this link –
©Chris Clark 2015