Born: 30 July 1963
Footballer 1980 to 1997
Then: Aged 17 years and 31 days, Webb became the youngest player ever to score for Reading. He played for Portsmouth, Nottingham Forest, Manchester United, Grimsby and Aldershot and won 26 full England caps.
Now: Webb is married, has three sons and works as a postman in Reading.
It is only five after eight in the evening, but when you have been up for as long as Neil Webb has it must seem closer to midnight. ‘Don’t believe anyone who says you get used to waking up early,’ he says. ‘It’s nonsense. You can never get used to the 4.15 alarm. But once you are up and about it’s fine.’ By 5am he is at the Royal Mail depot a few minutes from his home. After a couple of hours in the sorting office, he hits the road with a bag of letters. ‘It’s good exercise,’ he says. ‘And I’m home by lunch … It’s a job. What else do people expect me to do?’
It was here in Reading that Webb’s career began. A goalscoring midfielder, he soon moved on to bigger clubs, first Nottingham Forest then, in 1989, Manchester United bought him for £1.5 million. At the time, he was rated the best player in England. But after just four games at Old Trafford, Webb snapped an Achilles playing for England against Sweden. By his own admission he was never the same player again, although he was still in England’s 1990 World Cup squad. ‘Gazza still thanks me for getting injured, because that gave him his break.’
Webb left United during 1992-93, when the Reds won their first league title since 1967. He moved back to Forest, who were promptly relegated. Another Achilles injury was a further setback.
His career did not so much end as fizzle out. ‘I fully expected to play until I was 35, but ended up quitting two years before. It was not through choice but because no one wanted me.’
Webb resorted to offering to train with a club for free, just to be given the chance to prove himself. ‘All I wanted was accommodation in a B&B somewhere near.’
For a while there were no takers. Then Exeter let him train for a week and he had a brief spell at Grimsby. ‘I thought I had proved myself – enough at least to put myself in the shop window. I was convinced that a Second or Third Division club would come in.’
But the calls never came and, after a spell at non-League Aldershot, he retired. ‘Not being wanted hurt. People said I was overweight. But the clubs could at least have seen me in training. I still can’t believe no one would give me a chance.’
The pain faded when he became manager of Weymouth. Webb had never taken his coaching badges. ‘I was always anti the way they were taught. It was percentage football stuff then.’ His stint lasted only a few months. ‘I never wanted to be a number one anyway. I’d probably have been a better coach. Or maybe a scout.’
For the next 18 months, he did nothing. ‘It was great in the summer. I played golf and trained a bit. But in the winter it was depressing.’
Matchdays were the worst. ‘Sleep through a Saturday is the best way for me to describe it. That was our day. But now it’s getting to noon and you are nowhere near a football ground. There’s no buzz, no driving into the stadium, no fans and no walking on to the pitch at two. You don’t see the ground fill up, or the inside of a dressing room.
You can never replace that sensation of matchday. It’s best just to sleep.’
Webb was sure he would soon be back in football. ‘I always knew I would have to work again after I retired. But I was hoping that it would still be in the game. I was firing off letters to clubs, asking if they had a position for me. They would write back saying I did not have the right experience. Always a cracker that one. How do I get experience if no one will give me a chance? It’s the same if you are a young kid trying to get on the working ladder or someone like me, 36 then, trying to find employment.
‘I’ve not got a bad pedigree. Alan Ball, Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and Bobby Robson all coached me. I always put that on my CV but it doesn’t seem to work.’ Webb started to feel restless. His marriage to Shelley, the television presenter, was over. ‘I was looking after my two lads, which was great, but you need to fill something in your life. I just did not know what to do. My dad was a professional footballer in the Sixties. When his career ended he did shift work at the Courage brewery. Knowing that he had had to join the “real” working world was a help.’ Webb started to do delivery jobs for a friend. ‘I was just trying to fill the time.
It got me out of the house and doing something, which was good.’
After Webb married again, he started looking for more settled work. ‘My wife’s brother has been at the Post Office since he left school. I asked about the hours and it did not sound too bad. So I applied for a job.
‘When I first started there, people would say, “What are you doing? You played for England and earned a lot of money.” I said, “Yeah, and it isn’t going to last me till I’m 65. Work it out – mortgage, car, kids and tax.” People just don’t understand.’
Webb certainly earned well in his playing days (about £5,000 a week at United), although he just missed out on the golden years of Premiership pay. ‘Look, I was earning very good money. But then you live the lifestyle that fits in with that. I had the nice house and smart cars but I knew there would have to be something else. There was no way I could afford not to work again after 35.
‘It’s completely different now. Players can have the houses and cars and still have a load of money in the bank when they retire. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great for the players. I just can’t relate to it.’
Webb is shocked, even hurt, by people’s reaction to his being a postman.
‘Growing up, I was just a kid who wanted to play for Reading. Whatever else happened was a bonus. I kept going up and up and when you get so high, you have got to come down. I have no qualifications. All I could do was play football.’
On Boxing Day in 2002, soon after he started working for Royal Mail, the Sun announced on its front page that a former England star was now a postman. ‘This reporter had been knocking on my door for three days. I said, “What’s this all about?” He said, “You being a postman.” I said, “So what?” “Well, you played for England.”
‘I asked him if it looked like I was destitute. I invited him in, gave him an interview and, of course, it came out totally different. Great Christmas that was. I never made the front page when I played.
‘The story belittled my neighbourhood, my house, what I was doing. There are thousands of postmen in this country and it made all of their jobs seem unworthy. But I’m not embarrassed about my work and neither is my family.’
Webb has put on a little weight since his playing days and has a small stud earring. But he is recognised on his rounds. ‘I don’t mind at all. It’s my life, and I enjoy having a natter. It is good that people still recognise you. But it’s even better when a kid who wasn’t born when you retired comes up to you and says, “I’ve seen you on video. You were a really good player.” That’s rewarding.’
Webb goes to his local pub most Sundays to watch the 4 o’clock Premiership match. ‘I wish I was out there playing – there’s no hiding that fact. You wish you had done things differently during your career, eaten a bit better maybe. Or used my time a bit better. You have loads of time as a footballer to learn other skills. We never trained in the afternoon.
‘But you don’t think that far ahead until you are 30 or have your first serious injury. You always put off things till tomorrow and then suddenly tomorrow is here. ‘
For the moment, Webb seems content. ‘I have my wife Dawn, my baby Neo, and Josh and Luke, who are on the books at Reading and Arsenal. Those are four great things in my life. As far as I’m concerned, they are my life.’
But he has not given up on finding a job in the game. ‘I’d love to be with a club, especially my hometown club.’ Getting his coaching badges would be a good first step. “I’m probably too laid back about it. Maybe this summer though. Yeah, maybe this summer I’ll go and get them”