Danny Simpson has been trying to prove people wrong most of his career, but the hardest battle was trying to rid himself of a reputation he created for himself. Chief sports writer Luke Edwards reports
DANNY Simpson had the swagger, the talk and the attitude. He had the ego, the fast car, the bling, the girls and the celebrity friends.
What he did not have was anything to back it up. A handful of appearances for Manchester United was all it took for a young man who had thrived on adversity and prospered through hard work to lose his way.
There was a Red Devil on the club crest on his chest, but it was the devil on his shoulder that was leading him astray. You will be hard pressed to find a Premier League footballer who lives like a saint, but Simpson was not merely enjoying the fittings and fixtures of fame, he was addicted to them, throwing himself into a world of nightclubs, bad influences, late nights and damaging temptations.
He was losing the qualities that had opened up that new world to him, and in danger of allowing a promising career to disappear with the bitter hindsight of regret and remorse.
Once the right-back heir to Gary Neville at Old Trafford, in two years Simpson had been crushed while on loan at Blackburn Rovers, written off as a Premier League footballer with a playboy reputation which made him about as desirable as a 35-year-old injury prone Italian with a history of sleeping with his team-mates’ wives.
“That time at Blackburn was probably the hardest period,” said Simpson, who finally brought an end to a decade at Old Trafford when he signed permanently for Newcastle in January last year. “I went there under Paul Ince, got into the side, played 11 games on the bounce, we were doing well and I was doing well. But there was a negative atmosphere around the training ground, there were a few iffy results and Incey got the sack.
“Sam Allardyce came in and from day one I knew I wasn’t his type of player. It’s fair enough, but at the time I didn’t feel like that. I was playing in the Premier League one week and the next I was sitting in the stand not even making the bench.
“I thought I was going to kick on there, prove myself, but it went horribly wrong. Knowing that, no matter how hard I trained, I wasn’t going to get a chance, it’s easy to get distracted. It was a sickening feeling. I’d never felt rejected like that before. I wanted to go back to Man U. I was miserable.
“When I got back, I felt I’d been written off. When people looked at me, managers, players, they saw a Championship player. I’d done it in that league at Sunderland and so on, but I’d failed in the Premier League. That was the perception of me. There was a huge question mark and it was hard to get anyone to give me a chance.”
Yet, Simpson knows that reluctance to give him another go in the top flight stemmed from his own failings and the reputation he had developed for his lifestyle, not his football.
He explained: “I was a playboy, I was getting into trouble off the pitch. People had a certain opinion of me, things I’d got up to at Man U. I was a Manchester lad who’d gone from being a nobody to playing in the Premiership.
“I got some attention, I got confident. I can admit now it went to my head.
“There were certain things I did, I was hanging around the wrong people. I had a bit of money. I was wearing the jewellery, driving a fancy car. I hadn’t done anything in the game, but I was living and behaving like someone who had. That wasn’t me, I’d always been a hard worker. I’d lost my way. When anything happened, I had that reputation. When something went wrong, even if it wasn’t my fault, I got the blame.
“Football’s a small world and people heard the stories and listened to the rumours and nobody wanted to touch me because of it. It was my own fault, but it takes a long time to change perceptions.”
Given the city’s history of leading highly-paid young footballers astray, a move to Newcastle would not have been an obvious solution to Simpson’s troubles, yet in Chris Hughton he found a manager who was willing to offer him not just an escape, but also a shot at rehabilitation.
He said: “It was hard to get anyone to give me a chance until Chris Hughton came along. He spoke to Paul Ince about me, and he recommended me, Newcastle gave me that chance and here I am. If Chris hadn’t spoken to Paul Ince, who knows?
“He gave me a chance to rebuild my career and it’s gone fantastically for me. I’ve changed my personality and my lifestyle, I’m a firm believer that how you behave off the pitch has a direct bearing on what you do on it.
“I needed a home. I’d been at Manchester United since I was 11, but I’d spent a three-year period out on loan. It was good, I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut playing in the reserves.
“I always tried to get out and get more first-team experience. It helped me in a way, but on the other hand, if I’d stayed at Man U, would I have played more there? I do wonder.
“But at 21 or 22, I had an opportunity to come here and it’s something I will always be grateful for. It was perfect timing, I knew it wasn’t going to happen for me at Manchester United. I had to leave.
“There was a temptation to stay, it’s Man U, I’m from Manchester, I was training with players like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo. It’s like a dream.
“I was happy, but at the same time I wanted to have a career, I wanted to be a success, not someone who is mates with a load of superstar footballers. I wanted to come out of my comfort zone and Newcastle gave me that.”