At the risk of making football fans feel old, Danny Welbeck turns 27 this weekend. Time flies, particularly for a footballer’s playing career.
It’s hard to believe it was over nine years ago that the love affair between Manchester United fans and the lad from Longsight began, when he came off the bench to score a 30-yard belter against Stoke in the Premier League.
“It’s amazing really,” he said after the game.
“It is what every young boy would dream of, in front of the Stretford End on my debut for someone coming from Manchester.”
Welbeck was another academy graduate off the conveyor belt and United supporters were desperate for him to make it. As an eight-year-old, he watched his team win the Champions League against Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp and still remembers the party that followed in Manchester.
“I was in the front room watching with my family,” he said. “The celebrations were mental. The whole street went wild!”
How could United fans not want a player with such longstanding ties to the club to succeed?
He spent some time out on loan at Preston North End but that stint was – prophetically – cut short by injury. He later went to Sunderland and this is when United fans started to have real belief he had a future at United.
Welbeck’s highlight was scoring in Sunderland’s win over then champions Chelsea, in a season that saw him score six and assist one in 21 starts. He hadn’t set the world alight but he had done well enough in a weaker team and United fans couldn’t wait for him to return.
Danny was a bit rough around the edges and still had plenty of things to improve on, namely his composure in front of goal, but he had the makings of a good player. Someone loving the club doesn’t mean they deserve to stay if they aren’t good enough but it should mean they’re afforded more patience from the fanbase.
“I am just like any other normal Manc boy,” he said. “To be given the chance to play for Manchester United is a dream.”
He was seen kissing the badge after scoring goals away against Manchester City and Arsenal, the embodiment of one of the supporters on the field, but no moment ranked more highly for him than in the Bernabeu. As a 22-year-old, he scored against Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, looked up to the travelling United fans in the gods, arms outstretched, and it felt like that was the moment he had made it.
It didn’t work out for Welbeck at United though.
Sir Alex Ferguson played him largely out wide and when given the opportunity to play up front he didn’t do enough to impress. Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney were superior strikers, so he had to bide his time, but when the legendary manager retired, time ran out for Welbeck.
Louis van Gaal sold him to Arsenal and he finished his United career with 29 goals in 142 games. While many United fans were upset to see him leave, the tide had been turning for some time, with lots of supporters becoming frustrated with the affection he received, which arose largely out of his red roots rather than ability.
Welbeck should be at his peak now but injuries have stopped him from reaching whatever level he might have achieved. He’s scored just 49 goals in all competitions for United and Arsenal, working out at 0.2 goals per game, which isn’t a great record.
Still, for all the sadness Welbeck’s departure caused, the emergence of Marcus Rashford quickly eased the pain. Filling the Welbz-shaped hole in their heart, Rashford is looking to be everything the fans had hoped their former striker would be.
He’s already just three goals short of matching Welbeck’s goal tally at United, but in 51 fewer games.
Rashford has goals against City, Chelsea and Arsenal to his name and only said goodbye to his teenage years three weeks ago.
What is more exciting for United fans though, more than any superior comparisons to Welbeck, is what he may go on to achieve.
Of course it’s far too early to accurately predict what he might be capable of but it’s worth noting that at 20 he has scored three more goals for United than Wayne Rooney had at the same age. When you consider that Rooney had the experience of close to 80 games of professional football under his belt by the time he joined United, it only further highlights Rashford’s achievements.
Let’s not forget, Rashford was playing in United’s U-18 side at the start of the season that he made his debut for the first team, with his only aspirations of nailing down a starting role for the U-21s.
Rooney spent 13 seasons at United and is the all-time top goalscorer, beating the record Sir Bobby Charlton held for 44 years. The hope is that fans won’t have to wait as long to see this record beaten again. It would be incredible to see Rashford, a player who has been at United since he was seven, go on to be named the club’s highest scorer.
Earlier this season, Cristiano Ronaldo suggested that Rashford could be a future Ballon d’Or winner.
Maybe all these predictions will look silly one day, just as the hopes that Welbeck could one day go on to be the main man at United. But at 20, Rashford is already a better player than the Arsenal forward has ever been, and his potential to go on to be a star is huge.