So the only way is down after Manchester United, is it? Not according to Danny Simpson. Stuart Rayner reports.
WHILE David Beckham was chasing shadows on Wednesday, distracting the Old Trafford crowd from their baiting of Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid were making their now-customary early exit from the European Cup.
Proof, some would say, that after leaving Manchester United the only way is down. They would be wrong, as Newcastle United’s Danny Simpson knows only too well.
Were Simpson still at the club he supported as a boy he might be competing for a league title, but only seeing out his contract on the phoney war battlefield of reserve team football. Swapping Uniteds has allowed him regular football in front of some of the biggest crowds in the country for a side top of the Football League.
Manchester United are often portrayed as a “family” but the Red Devils do not have a monopoly on being united. Simpson has found just as tightly-knit a squad at St James’ Park – as shown by the number of team-mates he has shot at recently! It is why he is pleased to have turned his back on a club which gave him more loans than first-team starts.
“It feels like something has come off my shoulders and I have come away from that tag,” says the man borrowed by Royal Antwerp, Sunderland, Ipswich Town and Blackburn Rovers before joining Newcastle – initially on loan. “People would say, ‘Do you want to go back (to Manchester United) or not?’ and it does play on your mind. I have settled here, it is permanent. I have moved up here and that makes a difference.
“People thought I was just saying it but the first few weeks I felt settled, comfortable, and the lads made me settle in. It is a good town.”
A “good town” is one thing, but what most affects the mood of professionals is their workplace. Simpson has come to the right place at the right time. Twelve months earlier he might not have found the same happy camp. “That is something I heard,” he admits. “Some lads would come in, train, not speak to each other and go home after training. This season it is the opposite. We get on well and spend time with each other.”
The 23-year-old believes his old club sets the standards off as well as on the field.
“That family atmosphere comes from Sir Alex (Ferguson) and he wants everyone to get on with each other off the pitch,” he argues. “You have to speak to each other outside training.”
Simpson’s former Sunderland manager Roy Keane tried paintballing, go-karting and white-water rafting to build spirit. Their North East rivals favour food, ten-pin bowling and Battlefield Bad Company 2 – a shoot-'em-up computer game. Ultimately, though, one ingredient delivers unity more effectively than any.
“When you are winning the confidence is there and you just want to play,” says Simpson. “Off the pitch we have done team bonding things like we have gone for meals, which I don’t think they did last season. We have gone bowling, and I know it is a silly thing but we are all online on a PlayStation. We have our headsets and are on speakerphone. We have eight to ten lads to link up from our homes in our spare time.
“We all come together and shoot each other! You come to training and have a laugh about it saying, ‘I killed you more!’
“It makes training a laugh and breaks down barriers. If anyone needs pulling into line in training or a match we can say it to each other because we know each other well.
“I was having a game against Fraizer Campbell (his former Manchester United team-mate, now at Sunderland) last night. As footballers we can’t go out all the time so it is a good way of being at home, bonding and having a laugh.”
The Magpies are on a high at present, pulling away from an increasingly forlorn chasing pack. The line between confidence and arrogance is a thin one, however, and Newcastle are anxious not to over-step it.
“Everyone is full of confidence after the 6-1 against Barnsley and what is it? Four (wins) on the bounce now?” asks Simpson. “We had a rocky patch a few weeks ago but we have to keep winning.
“The staff drum it in to us not to be complacent every day. We have loads of games left and we know with three games in a week if you don’t perform and others do, your lead could be gone. It has been such a long season that we just want to get the job done.
“It is not so much fear of failing that drives us so much as we have put loads of hard work in and come so far. After everything that has gone on we are determined not to mess up.
“We have a lot of lads who played for years in the Premier League. You want to get back to playing at Old Trafford and places like that. We also have young lads who have not had that and want to prove themselves.”
This afternoon brings one of the big games reserve team football could never serve up, but taking on Sunderland excites Simpson more.
“We beat Boro at home and you could tell it was not an actual derby,” he concedes. “I would love to have (a Tyne-Wear derby) next season. I love playing against my mates. To smash them on the pitch would be great! Sunderland can be safe and we will have a close derby.”