Danny Simpson on Man Utd, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle and punditry
It’s been a difficult few weeks for Newcastle United, but their Premier League destiny is still very much in their own hands.
Danny Simpson knows a thing or two about playing for the Magpies. And ahead of his Everton v Newcastle Ladbrokes 5-A-Side selection, we grabbed a few words from the former full-back (before Liverpool played Tottenham) to chat Newcastle, Man Utd, Leicester and much more…
Ole & United board deserve credit
I can’t say I expected Man United to be challenging for the title at the start of the season; I think everyone would’ve said it would be another two-horse race between Man City and Liverpool. But credit to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, really.
Eight weeks ago United were getting knocked out of the league, struggling for home form, there was all of that debate around Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire was having a difficult time, David de Gea came under criticism and there were calls for him to be dropped in favour of Dean Henderson. But all of that talk seems to have gone away. Ole has handled it all really well.
De Gea and Henderson are both getting game time, Pogba and Bruno are playing well together, Edinson Cavani has come in and he’s been unbelievable. There’s still a long way to go, but the players are believing in themselves and they’re believing in each other.
A lot of that is down to Fernandes. He’s making everyone around him a better player. That’s when you realise you’ve got a world class player; when he raises the levels of everyone around him, and that’s exactly what Fernandes has done.
Ole has clearly been backed by the board behind the scenes, which must be nice for him, because there has been a lot of speculation around his future over the last few years from the media. But he’s always conducted himself well in press conferences, he’s always calm and he comes across really level-headed and honest. That’s down to the board backing him. Compare that with other managers in the league who are going into games thinking ‘if I lose this, I’ve probably lost my job’.
Ole has got a plan, he’s got a process, and the club believe in it. Everything is going right at the moment. They probably still need a couple more players but things are looking good for them at the moment. Man United fans right now are obviously over the moon.
On life in Belgium as United youngster & the importance of loans for youngsters
At the time I never really gave too much thought to my loan move to Royal Antwerp. I just thought it was the next step on my journey to get to where I wanted to be, which was playing in the first team for Manchester United. Getting a loan move within 24 hours and going to Belgium was a different one because at the time that move seemed to be the natural stepping stone from the reserves to the United first team. If you went from the reserves to Antwerp, you’d come back and usually you’d be in with the first team going on pre-season tours and featuring in squads. So when that opportunity came along I just jumped at it.
I wasn’t there on my own, though. It was me, Jonny Evans, Fraizer Campbell and Darron Gibson so it was a great opportunity for all of us and we all learned a lot in our time in Belgium.
It actually really helped me in my career because I started to think about how it must have been for foreign lads that would come to United and to England. I can say I’ve been in a similar position. I was a young lad walking into a new dressing room in another country. We weren’t very welcomed by the Antwerp players when we first joined. The clubs had a good relationship but between players, those first few weeks were really challenging.
You’ve got to understand, we’re going to a feeder club, there’s four of us and we pretty much went straight into the first team. Before we got there they were a group of players who had been playing together for some time – these are men as well; grown men – and four young kids from United have come in and gone straight into the team.
We were classed as Man United players, which is true technically, but we weren’t Man United players; we were trying to become Man United players. We took up four places in that team so we all had to earn the respect of the squad as well as the right to play for them. After a few weeks it was fine and we all got on but when I look back now, I get why the first couple of weeks were so tough. It’s something you learn and it comes with experience but it taught me to stand up for myself.
I was out there for a year, playing the back end of one season and the start of the next so I never actually got one full season, but Sir Alex said it was better for my development to go back for the start of their season, then in the January he told me I’d done enough to progress to my next chapter which ended up being at Sunderland for the rest of the season under Roy Keane.
My lowest point out there was just being away from home and family in general, but I was there with three other teammates which massively helped, obviously. When one of us was low, the other three would pick him up. We lived together out there and we were all supporting each other which helped a lot.
There were times where we’d be playing in front of 10,000 fans – which was a new experience for us in itself – and we’d come back to Antwerp from an away game and fans would be waiting for the bus to pull in – they’d be banging on the bus, fuming at us.
You’re a young lad in a foreign country who has come from reserve team football in Manchester to representing a team in another country where fans are right there waiting for you at the stadium to give you a piece of their mind – it was a bit uncomfortable. But Sir Alex would’ve obviously known that’s something we’d have to deal with, and he knew it would make us tougher people and subsequently better players. It’s why he’s the best manager ever.
I’m not saying that experience carried the same kind of pressure as wearing the Man United shirt did, but it was pressure. You had to give your everything for the team and adapt to the new culture and their style of football. You had to grow as a man out there and needed to learn to cope with the demands – and it helped all of us. It made me and Jonny Evans stronger for our next loan move which was to Sunderland.
Sir Alex always had a middle man between Man United and Antwerp, so he always knew how we were doing. When you came back from any loan spell, the first thing he would do was call you in and speak to you about how he thought it went. He was obviously always very honest.
My first conversation with him about any move was him saying he wanted to send me out to Belgium for the second half of their season, I came back and he wanted me to join up with the lads on the pre-season tour. He thought it went well but he told me he still thought I should go back out to Belgium. I kicked on and he spoke to me and Jonny in January and felt we’d both done as much as we could out there, so he wanted to see us playing in England in the Championship, trying to get Sunderland promoted under Roy Keane.
I think loan spells are a great way of developing younger players and I don’t think they happen enough in modern day football. Don’t get me wrong, you can have some really bad loan spells, but when you’re in a squad and you’re looking at a young lad who has just stepped up to the first-team – you always see a completely different lad when they come back from a loan spell. The best recent example I can give from someone I’ve seen it happen to so successfully would be Harvey Barnes, who obviously went out to West Brom a couple of years ago.
The Harvey Barnes that left Leicester and the Harvey Barnes that came back after that spell at West Brom was a completely different player. I’m not saying he didn’t already have the ability, but you just felt he came back with so much more confidence and belief in himself. He came back knowing he belonged at Leicester and look at how he’s kicked on since returning. I’m good friends with Kieran Gibbs at West Brom, and it was clear they missed Barnes in the second half that season.
Leicester are in the title race
Leicester are in the title race this year, 100%. You can’t rule anything out in football, especially after what we did five years ago. Even more so now you can’t rule Leicester out when you look at the squad they’ve built. It’s very different to the team we had in 2016.
They’ve got a different manager in Brendan Rodgers and there’s a lot of youth in and around the place – especially in the first team; Wesley Fofana and James Justin spring to mind. Justin’s been a revelation this season; he can play anywhere and you know what you’re going to get from him. The likes of Wilfried Ndidi and James Maddison feel like they’ve been around for years, and they’re still young themselves.
There’s a perfect mix of youth and experience in the team at the moment. You’ve got the title winners, Kasper Schmeichel, Marc Albrighton and obviously Jamie Vardy. Also Jonny Evans; he might not have won the league with us but he’s a Premier League champion from his Man United days as well.
And those four players, especially Kasper, Evans and Vardy, are a massive part of your team; they’re your spine. If you put those in your team alongside all of these exciting young players, you can’t rule them out for the title.
James Justin has been the most impressive player for me this season. He’s come in and done whatever job he’s been asked to do. Right-back, left-back, right wing-back, left wing-back, either side of a front three, he’s done all of those jobs and he’s not put a foot wrong at all. He’s never let the team down.
He’s come from Luton, so to be playing the way he is right now at the age he is as well, he’s been a real key player for them and their standout player for me so far this season.
Of late, Maddison is finally starting to get back to that form we were used to seeing. We all just wanted to see him start adding goals to his game and he’s doing that now. He’s fantastic. I speak to him every other day; I know the type of lad he is. He’s the type of lad who will take criticism on the chin and he loves proving his doubters wrong.
He makes no secret about the fact that he wants to be in the England squad. He’s always open in interviews and he wants to get better every day. He knew he needed to get more goals and assists and he’s starting to do it regularly for Leicester. That’s because of the kind of person he is; he’ll be out on the training ground every day pushing himself. He speaks way beyond his years as well in interviews.
Life after Vardy
We’ll see in the next couple of weeks what Leicester are made of without Jamie Vardy. Brendan Rodgers is an unbelievable manager though and he’ll no doubt get the best out of the fantastic players he’s got available to him aside from Vardy.
If you’re looking at their recent games though, I don’t think Vardy’s scored in his last five matches – he’s not in a great run of form. It’s not been mentioned because the other lads have stepped up and covered for him. Harvey Barnes has got 10 goals now in all competitions, Maddison has started scoring again, Youri Tielemans has got a couple.
It’ll be interesting to see who plays up top for Leicester while Vardy is out; whether Brendan goes for Ayoze Perez of Kelechi Iheanacho. Kelechi has got three goals in the Europa League this season to be fair to him so maybe he’ll get the nod.
How do you replace Jamie Vardy, though? He’s an unbelievable player.
After we won the league Vardy was obviously linked with Arsenal in the papers and we all saw those rumours in the papers and on social media. There was a picture of him which did the rounds that summer where he’s in an Arsenal shirt which someone had photoshopped. I’m sure it did the rounds in our WhatsApp group.
It’s not something you really want to press the player on at the time because ultimately it’s his decision. But I never really thought he’d leave. He’s settled where he is and he’s always been happy at Leicester. People forget that it’s not that easy to move, it’s not just a player moving to another club and a new training ground, it’s your whole family. You’re taking kids out of schools where they’re in settled routines – it’s hard.
But ultimately it’s always that player’s decision. If it was me having a private conversation with important players like Vardy I’d always tell them I want them to stay but you have to respect their decision if they do want to leave, like with N’Golo Kante. We obviously didn’t want him to leave but you’ve got to accept it and wish him the best. Thankfully that didn’t happen with Vardy though.
Leicester have always been amazing to him throughout his time at the club. Obviously we were glad as a group of players that he didn’t leave that summer. He’ll go down as one of Leicester’s greatest ever players and he doesn’t even look like he’s slowing down any time soon.
I remember having a conversation with him about it one time and I put it down to him retiring from international duty; it’s brought out the best of him for Leicester and it’s allowed him to keep going and keep getting better because he’s able to rest whenever England play. Over the years we’ve seen a lot of players make that decision and I think it’s done Vardy good.
Lampard will prove Chelsea wrong
We don’t know what the conversations were between Frank Lampard and the Chelsea board at the start of the season, first and foremost. But you’ve got to look and think if Chelsea would’ve won their last game, they’d have been two points off Liverpool – who have been one of the best teams in the world over the past couple of years.
Is that not good enough? Like I said, we don’t know what expectations were from the board. But Frank is an English manager, he’s an England manager and we all want to see these players do well in management. I was a little bit gutted for Frank, even though I’ve got nothing to do with the club. I’ve got a couple of good friends there; Ben Chilwell being one of them.
I think you only need to look at the general consensus on social media to decide whether or not sacking Frank was the right thing to do. All of the players have given him their thanks and that probably says a lot more than any fan or pundit can, to be honest.
Frank knew what he needed to do at Chelsea though; he’s not stupid. He’s been a part of the club for so long, he’s seen managers come and go because they haven’t delivered, so he will have known when he took the job that he’d have needed to bring success and trophies. He did a good job at Derby and you can’t turn a job like Chelsea down. He could’ve done with a bit more time there just off the back of the job he did there last season without being able to sign any players.
But he’d have known there’d have been pressure on him after spending as much as he did on players in the summer.
I think he’ll get a good job off the back of what he’s done at Chelsea, to be honest. He’ll go away for a little while, but he’s a better manager than he was when he first got there. I think Gary Neville said you learn a lot more from your sackings and I’m sure he’ll come back and prove Chelsea wrong after a while of reflection.
It’s nice to see Liverpool wobbling
I’m not surprised Liverpool are struggling at the moment, if I’m being honest. Sir Alex always used to say that the season after winning the league is always going to be the hardest.
We weren’t expected to win the league the year we did with Leicester, so it wasn’t like there were any real expectations for us to go and defend it in the following season, but we still experienced how difficult it was playing for a season as champions. Wherever you go or whoever comes to your stadium, the opponent always puts in that little bit more to get something from the champions and it’s something Liverpool are experiencing now.
Obviously Virgil van Dijk has been a massive loss for them and the front three haven’t been as clinical as we’ve been used to seeing. Is it burnout? Are we starting to see them tire out? That front three have played together consistently at such a high level for a few years now.
We’ve seen recently with the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson; they’ve been playing at such a crazy standard for so long. It’s so hard to maintain the standards they’ve set themselves at the best of times – but this season is something else. The schedule hasn’t helped anyone. You’re playing on a Saturday morning, a Wednesday evening and a Saturday night; you’re a little bit all over the place and it’s difficult to really prepare a routine for players. Then you’ve got European football to take into consideration as well.
It is difficult but I do think it’s just a bad spell. I think they’re allowed a bad spell; it’s the first one they’ve had in years. Everyone has them, it’s just about whether they can get through it and start challenging again in the league.
You can’t rule Liverpool out. I’m not too sure when Diogo Jota is back but they could do with them. With the way that front three are performing at the moment, you’d think Jota would be able to come in and just give them that boost by taking some pressure off them and getting a few goals himself.
They’ve really missed having Fabinho in the middle of the park because the job he did allowed his teammates to get forward, create chances and score goals. They’ve not been able to use him in that role as much as they’d have liked because of injuries to Van Dijk and Joe Gomez.
I think Liverpool will finish in the top four – I’m not ruling them out of the title race but I think the next month will be massive for all of the teams at the top. In a month from now we’ll be in a much clearer position to see who the genuine title contenders are.
It’s nice to see that Liverpool are having a little wobble and Man United are up there though. In all seriousness it’s just good to see Man United and Liverpool playing each other in games which mean something again. The 0-0 did let us all down but the FA Cup game made up for it.
It’s great to see that Liverpool are human. It’s great to see Mo Salah is human. Their levels have dropped off a bit and you can understand why.
On life without football
It’s frustrating. I want to be playing games. It’s what I’ve done since I was a kid and it’s the first time in my career that I’ve had this long without playing. But I’ve done a few bits on TV over the last few months as a pundit and it’s something I’m really enjoying.
I’ve actually learned quite a lot in that time as well from working as a pundit. When you take a step back you find yourself watching games with a tactical eye. You’re studying things a lot more. It’s completely different to just watching a match at home with your mates; it’s your job, so you have to prepare for it properly.
I’m learning from other pundits all the time; in fact I think it’s probably made me a better player. I miss the game though, just being around the lads every day. There have been some positives from my time away and that’s how I’ve got to think about it. If I was to ever play again I know I’ve improved as a player through the coaching and punditry work I’ve been doing in the last few months.
I had an unfortunate injury at the back end of last season so first things first it was about getting myself fit again over the summer. We saw at the start of the season, a lot of the lads were picking up little injuries. I’ve recovered from that now – it was a challenge in itself because being out injured isn’t something I’ve been used to in my career. I’ve been one of the lucky ones in that respect.
It would be nice to work on a game with Micah Richards
I’ve worked with Martin Keown a few times as a pundit and I’ve got to say he’s very, very good at what he does. He’s always writing notes and his attention to detail is second to none. I’ve spent a bit of time down at the BT Sport studios and there are always players there that I know really well. Owen Hargreaves has had a few good conversations with me in the past, I’ve done a few shows with Steve Sidwell, too.
I’ve only done a few games here and there and I’m learning a lot from all of the ex-players around me. Jermaine Jenas has been great to me. I’ve had plenty of conversations with him on the phone, asking him for advice. He’s helped me a lot, as has Micah Richards. I spoke to Micah last week, he’s done really well and he’s enjoying it at Sky.
Me and Micah have known each other since we were 12/13, kicking lumps out of each other at United and City games! It would be nice to be on a panel with him at some point where we could have a bit of banter at a game. He’s bringing out another side to Roy Keane as well and it’s what fans want to see. I watch punditry a lot more now and I understand what fans want to see. Micah and Roy are a great pair, as are Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville. It’s something I’d like to think I can be a part of going forward as well.
I’m new to the world of punditry though, and I’m still learning a lot. It’s the same in any job, you get better in time. I’m nowhere near where I want to be when it comes to that side of things, I’ve got loads I need to work on. I need to get more broadcaster training under my belt. But I can already see an improvement in the job I’m doing when I look back to jobs I was doing 12 months ago.
I can completely relate to that famous Gary Neville first night on Monday Night Football, the clothes he was wearing and the way he was saying things… now look at him. You can’t help but listen to him when he’s talking. Gary has always been there for me, and any youth players from United, actually. He negotiated one of my contracts at United back in the day – he’s always been someone I’ve felt I can just pick up the phone and call and he’d do anything he could to help us out.
I was fortunate enough to be given some great opportunities with MUTV through my links with the club so that’s where I did a lot of my early work as a pundit. It really is a different world though, it’s so strange being on the other side of things.
At first I found it difficult because United weren’t doing very well when I started doing punditry work for the club, and I found it difficult to critique players who I was friends with. There was something strange about that for me; these are my mates and here I am on TV saying where they’ve messed up – that’s one of the first things you’ve got to get your head around. If my mate has made a mistake I’ve got to be honest and do my job; I can’t just stick up for him.
I remember one of my first appearances pitch-side was at Old Trafford against Aston Villa for a TV station called Astro. I had to interview Harry Maguire, one of my old teammates. I’ve had no training in interviewing players, and I’m looking up at him with the microphone in my hand. I’ve been told I’ve got to ask him three questions, but I had to make the questions up myself – I wasn’t given anything to ask him. So as he’s answering the first question, I’m not even listening to his answer; I’m just thinking what can I ask him next.
He’s my mate; I don’t want to ask him something stupid. It was a completely new experience for me though and it’s made me a better interviewer, that’s for sure. If anyone can find it I’m sure it’d be pretty interesting to watch, that.
I’m working towards that level of punditry that Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand have set. You do your best job as a pundit when you just feel like you’re talking to your mate. That’s when you start to become natural, when you forget the cameras are there. It comes across better to fans watching at home.
Patrice Evra is another one who is great to watch. You see the pain in him when United are losing and it’s what fans can relate to. It’s good to see a player that passionate about his former team.
You look at the points tally and Newcastle aren’t actually that far off the position they were in when Rafa Benitez was in charge at this stage of the season. OK, there have been a couple of bad results; the Sheffield United defeat was disappointing. It’s difficult because I was there for four years so I understand the fans’ frustrations. They want to be up there. They want to be challenging.
But who could come in and do more than what Steve Bruce is doing. You have to look and think it’s maybe the players who can do more.
I think their second half performance against Leeds was much better than the first half. The Sheffield United game aside, they got a good draw at Liverpool, they lost to Arsenal and Leicester; there’s no shame in losing those.
Every team is going to have bad spells and good spells this season. Keep Bruce in until the end of the season and see where he takes them. He’s half way towards that 40-point mark nearly. I know Newcastle want to do better than that but it’s a tough job up there at the moment. They’d be so much better if they had 50,000 fans inside that stadium every week, I know that much.