“The new normal,” Danny Welbeck smiles as Brighton’s production manager makes some final adjustments to the Zoom video screen. Interviewing footballers remotely through a little rectangle: another of those subtle little reminders of the passing of time, of just how much has changed in the blink of an eye.
Here is another: last week, Welbeck turned 30. At his best he was a vision: a streak of searing pace and a capsule of pure potential, a Premier League champion at 22. There was the big breakthrough at Manchester United, the backheel against Sweden at Euro 2012, the towering header against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. In 2014 Arsène Wenger famously snapped him up on deadline day while in Rome meeting the Pope. How did that guy – Dat Guy – turn 30?
“Yeah, thanks for reminding us,” he chuckles. “It’s not always great to dwell on the past. You’ve got to look forward. See how you can improve. See the positives in every situation. And that’s what I’m doing.”
As he rebuilds his career with a short-term contract on the south coast, there are plenty of positives to build on. An encouraging early start. A brilliant goal against Aston Villa. An exciting young team in need of a cutting edge, some experience, some big-game class. The pace is still there, he insists, even if he is now one of the grand old men of the dressing room. “There are a lot of players that are younger than me,” he grins. “But whether they’re quicker than me … I’m not too sure about that. Maybe Tariq [Lamptey].”
And in any case, Welbeck has plenty of reasons not to want to dwell on the past. For one thing, there are the injuries that cut him down since 2015. First the right knee (10 months). Then the left knee (eight months). Then a broken ankle (nine months). Then a hamstring injury at Watford last autumn (four months). Then of course, the world stopped. At the end of which, he has completed 90 minutes in the Premier League only 15 times in six years.
“There’s been a lot of trials and setbacks,” he says. “And even though it’s really, really hard … you’ve got to be resilient. I’ve got a great group of friends and family around me. They obviously know how much I love playing football. So for them to see me not doing that, it is … really tough.”
Even during the long months of absence, when he could barely leave his house, let alone kick a ball, Welbeck strove for improvement. He went back and analysed his old games on tape. He read voraciously: Relentless by Tim Grover, the former NBA trainer who worked with Michael Jordan, was a particular favourite. Above all, he tried to stay grounded, to keep a healthy sense of perspective in a world of suffering.
“Obviously when you’re in this situation, you think a bit selfishly,” he admits. “‘Why am I in this position?’ Stuff like that. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of people out there in a much worse position. So you’ve got to channel your mind to think about the positives, however hard it may be.”
And yet, even though he is surely nearer the end than the beginning, even though there remains a sense of pathos to Welbeck’s career – the rotten luck, the worlds not conquered, the trophies not won – he will hear none of it. You get written off quickly in this business, and though it is only a couple of years since Welbeck was first choice at Arsenal and part of Gareth Southgate’s England squad, he now has to prove himself all over again: to fight the perception that he is more than a bag of treasured memories.
Was there ever a trace of doubt? That after all the setbacks, all the rehab, he might never get back to where he wanted to be? “You always have that initial thought,” he says. “That this is going to be really tough. Fortunately, I’m blessed to be young, fit and healthy. And once you get back out on to the pitch, everything’s monitored these days. You get to see the levels you’re at, the numbers you’re producing in training.”
Welbeck had kept himself in fine shape over the summer. Though he left Watford by mutual consent at the end of last season and was technically a free agent, he carried on working with the club’s fitness coaches while he waited for an offer that would tempt him. It came from Brighton, with Dan Ashworth, the technical director who knew Welbeck from his time working with England, key to the deal. “There were offers from elsewhere,” Welbeck says. “But Brighton sold the football to me, along with the coach and the people around the club. It’s structured very well.”
He’s a great coach. Tactically he brings a lot to the table
Under Graham Potter’s management Brighton have made small but significant steps forward. They play attractive passing football and have one of the best pressing games in the Premier League. On expected goals, they are sixth in the table. “He’s a great coach,” says Welbeck. “Tactically he brings a lot to the table. Approaching matches, no stone is left unturned. We know how we want to play, and how we’re going to attack opponents.”
What has so often held them back since winning promotion in 2017 is the ability to convert promising positions into goals. That, in theory, is where Welbeck comes in. Though Welbeck’s scoring record has been modest – partly due to playing much of his career on the wing – his arrival has allowed Brighton to switch to 3-5-2, with Welbeck combining with Neal Maupay or Aaron Connolly to offer more options in the final third. “When you’ve got a partner, you always look to combine,” he says. “Once the ball goes into Neal I’m always trying to make myself spare: give him someone to bounce off, a one-two, that sort of thing.”
We talk a little about styles of play. What makes an attractive style, and who does he enjoy watching today? “Winning is the most important thing,” he insists. “And then it’s how you win. The pressing style of teams like Liverpool and Bayern Munich is a joy to watch. To see how everybody combines as a team, and they move together so efficiently. Everybody knows their job. To have that enthusiasm and energy, that togetherness: that’s something I enjoy.”
Premier League football in 2020 can often feel a little harder to love than it used to: a game played in empty stadiums, refereed in darkened rooms, largely sealed off from the world outside. And yet, when you hear Welbeck talking about his unquenchable passion for a game that has been so cruel to him, you grasp the other side of the equation: football as salvation, redemption, a pure and brilliant thing in a world of new normals and old uncertainties.
“I just love playing football,” he says with a beautiful economy. “Once you’ve got the football at your feet, and you’re on the pitch, and you’re up against somebody. That’s the joy of the game.”
Danny Welbeck is backing the American Express Shop Small campaign to encourage the nation to support their local small businesses from 5-20 December. For more information visit: americanexpress.co.uk/shopsmall