Danny Higginbotham interview: No sunset just yet for former Potters favourite
Ex-Stoke City defender Danny Higginbotham’s career has taken two recent twists to refuel the fire and although there remains a dedicated fixation on what lies ahead he has a genuine appreciation for those who have colourised his years in the game up to now.
After Championship and League One football last season it was undoubtedly a surprise to many at the end of August when the one-time Manchester United youngster opted to swap the Football League for part-time. Despite over 200 Premier League appearances and last year’s second-tier loan with Ipswich Town and a League One play-off campaign with Sheffield United, Danny joined Chester FC of the Conference Premier.
With frequent media work coming in and a new lease of life on the field there is plenty to get to grips with and enjoy for the 34-year-old. The ex-Derby County, Southampton and Sunderland left-back was also the subject of a recent news story as he revealed he has agreed to represent Gibraltar at international level. An approach that is central to Danny is to focus on looking forward, but after six unforgettable seasons at Stoke City he can certainly forgive himself for casting a glance back for a moment.
Signing initially from Southampton in 2006, Danny spent one season with the Potters before returning after a year with Sunderland in 2008. Stoke had by now won promotion to the top flight and his contributions thereafter would ensure that everyone connected with the club will remember him fondly for the role he played in reaffirming them amongst English football’s elite. Danny describes his days at the Britannia Stadium as his best in the game and they are worth all the more to him after the toil he witnessed the club going through to get there.
“It’s been an amazing transformation. When Tony Pulis signed me the first time he told me all about where he wanted to take the club and I listened and bought into it but I found it a bit hard to believe at the same time.
“I made my debut away at Southend and we didn’t have a great start. By October he started to get the team he wanted out there and we had people like Patrik Berger, Lee Hendrie, Liam Lawrence and Salif Diao coming in.
“We won 4-0 at Leeds and eventually went on an unbelievable run but just missed out on the play-offs. When I was there the first time we used to get changed at the stadium and have to drive to the training pitch which was this field with nothing around it.
“When he brought me back in the Premier League it had all started to change. The training ground now is up there with the best in the league but for the first year we had Portakabins from Aston Villa.
“It’s great to see where it’s all come from and to have been on that ride because it’s not just the training ground that’s been built up brick by brick in that time but the club too.”
It is over fifteen years since Manchester United gave him his debut and there have been the archetypal professional player’s ups and downs along the way. Just as numerous great films have a soundtrack to match so too do many on-pitch careers in one way or another. As is the way on here I looked at how music has been there throughout the journey for Danny and he reveals how it provided him with a character-shaping experience that is impossible to forget!
“When I was an apprentice at (Manchester) United you had to do an initiation and sing a song you liked. I chose UB40 ‘Red Red Wine’ and I was 16, standing on a bench with a broom in front of people like (Ryan) Giggs and Lee Sharpe.
“I was really nervous because they’re your heroes and for some reason my top lip started twitching and wouldn’t stop! So for the next few months I had the nickname ‘Elvis’.”
Having appeared for the first team in a Premier League win at Barnsley in May 1998 and ahead of a loan with Royal Antwerp of Belgium, Danny headed to the White Isle during the summer of Reds teammate David Beckham and England’s heartbreak against Argentina. We discussed this while on the subject of the late-90s/early 2000s explosion in popularity of the UK garage genre and the Cypriot destination Ayia Napa that played host to it with so many footballers in attendance at the time.
“I love my garage music and the scene around it when it was really big was just mental but I didn’t actually go over there (to Ayia Napa). I did go to Ibiza though and it was while the 98’ World Cup was on.
“We went to Cafe del Mar to watch the sun go down and they had all the relaxing music on. Then we went to watch the sun come up at this place with a massive pool in the middle, I’m trying to think of the name of it, I think it was Privilege.”
Whether it evokes nostalgia in all the best ways or gets that wave of embarrassment flowing, music is absolutely unique in how it can paint a picture of the people we once were. Recalling his very first album initially, Danny searches the memory banks for some of the musical phases he has been through.
“I think I had it bought for me, it was on tape and it was Michael Jackson, the ‘Bad’ album. I like all different music – I’m into my rock like Kings of Leon, The Killers, and going back to Oasis.
“Then on the other side there’s ones like Elton John, Phil Collins and The Eagles. I’ve also been into rap in the past and I was a big fan of Warren G, 2Pac, Biggie (The Notorious B.I.G.) and one of my favourite albums was the soundtrack to a film called ‘Above The Rim’.
“The only type I really don’t like is classical so I’ve got quite a wide spectrum with music. I was into the garage scene but before then I went through a phrase of jungle and happy hardcore.
“I remember the nights Fantazia used to do and there was a mix of a Sting song ‘Fields of Barley’ (‘Fields of Gold’) that I liked.”
The dressing room scene and atmosphere tends to be different at each football club but it is probably safe to suggest that the type of rave clothing that passed as (sort of) acceptable in those early days of Fantazia would be outlawed in most, if not all, of them!
In the second half of the 2008/09 season, striker James Beattie was integral in keeping Stoke in the Premier League and Danny also played alongside him as he forced his way into the England squad while with Southampton. Beattie is currently managing League Two Accrington Stanley and he has always been one of the livelier personalities at the teams he has represented. Danny explains one of the ways in which he hit the target without needing to step out onto the field.
“James Beattie when we were at Stoke had all different types of music and there was a proper mash-up mix of 80s, 90s and present day that he played. It was brilliant, I think it was DJ Chachi.
“I’d give mine a go sometimes at other clubs but it wouldn’t last long! Music’s always been good for getting the lads going before a game and then after a win we’ll put it back on again.
“At Chester now one of the coaches plays a lot of 80s stuff, which I like.”
In July 2000, Derby manager Jim Smith brought Danny to Pride Park from Manchester United for a fee of £2million. It was a tough adaptation for him as a 21-year-old being thrust into a relegation fight and although they staved off the threat of the drop in 2000/2001 they would not manage it the year after. Danny was the club’s Player of the Year in 2001/02 but departed along with others half-way through the following campaign in the second tier, returning to the Premier League with Southampton.
While with the Saints he was named in the squad for the 2003 FA Cup final but did not feature as Gordon Strachan’s side were beaten 1-0 by Arsenal. He also experienced relegation to the Championship in 2005 under Harry Redknapp but played over 100 games for the club in total. One of his teammates at Southampton was a player he has worked with also at Derby and Stoke and he has become a good friend over the years.
“Rory Delap – when we go out and he’s had a drink he’ll try to get me to sing Oasis with him. With his (Cumbrian) accent though it’s a non-starter!”
There was a Scottish defender at Derby who impressed Danny when it came to displays of vocal talent but he has some advice for one of his distinguished old Stoke counterparts.
“Brian O’Neil at Derby on a night out was very good; he was like a professional singer. Ricardo Fuller thought he could sing but was completely out of tune.
“He should stick to his day job of scoring goals, which he’s not been too bad at I suppose!”
During his Southampton career Danny worked with a true club favourite who was a Saints player for 16 years and now coaches the Under-18s side. The verdict Danny gives on his music is not too glowing though and the same goes for Stoke’s ‘Berlin Wall’.
“I’ll have to go with Jason Dodd (for most different music taste), I can’t even tell you what it was, but it was bad. A few of the French lads have had some interesting stuff but Robert Huth was another.
“I like rock music but his was hardcore, mental, people screaming!”
Bearing in mind the UB40 performance Danny managed in his apprentice days at Old Trafford, who would he choose from his career teammates to release a cover version of a song with and which one would they go for?
“I’d have to go with Rory Delap and we’d do ‘500 Miles’ (‘I’m Gonna Be’), The Proclaimers, because we’ve had a few good nights to that.”
On the domestic front, Danny, who scored the winner for Stoke in the 2011 FA Cup quarter-final with West Ham, is battling it out with Chester FC of the Conference Premier. Chester City were relegated from the Football League in 2009 and after grave errors, disputes and deductions that tore the club apart they were wound up in March 2010. The new club, Chester FC, was born two months later and after three titles in a row under manager Neil Young they are one division below the Football League once more.
Ex-Nottingham Forest loanee Danny made his Blues debut in a 2-0 win away to fierce rivals Wrexham and he got on the scoresheet in a 3-2 defeat to Gateshead. It has been more than a tricky start to the season however and Chester are currently second-bottom with 8 points from 12 games. Despite this, the move has been fulfilling for Danny so far and it has enabled him the opportunity to further develop off the field through his work with the likes of Sky Sports, talkSPORT, Football Focus and most recently MUTV for his old club.
“I had another year at Sheffield United but I had my fill of playing full-time really. I wanted something else to be going into when my career ended and the media side’s going really well.”
As touched upon, Danny is set to take his experience into international football with the British Overseas Territory, Gibraltar. His mother is from Spain and his grandmother has Gibraltarian links too. Additionally, the national team’s head coach is his uncle, Allen Bula, and Danny is expected to be involved with the side in their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign after they became a full UEFA member in May this year.
Even with the support and adoration of thousands it can be a lonely place at times for a professional player. A lot of soul-searching can happen and Danny knows what it is like to scrutinise his game to the last detail. He outlines the most crucial lessons he has learned from so many years in the profession.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have had a good career but I think I learnt a lot from growing up at United as a teenager. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the most technically gifted and there were a lot more talented players than me at the club but a lot of them filtered out of the game.
“The work ethic you need at United is exceptional and there’s been a lot of highs and lows but I think that stood me in good stead. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to treat both the same – if you have a good game don’t get too carried away and if you have a bad game don’t be too hard on yourself.
“When I was younger I used to dissect every bad performance and overanalyse everything. Football’s a strange industry and you get a lot of life lessons.
“Another of them is to keep looking forward because the minute you start looking back is when you start going downhill. Play every game as though it’s your last because no matter what standard you’re at there’s always someone trying to take your position.
“If you come off the pitch and you’ve given 100 per cent then no one can ask any more but if you leave anything out there you’re cheating yourself.”
While the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson was irrepressible at the beginning of his career, Danny went on to garner varied ways of working from other managers. Picking out bosses from Stoke, Derby and Southampton he gives an insight into the approaches they took on.
“I had managers who were trying to give me the same information but in different ways. Tony Pulis, I thought his man-management was very good.
“John Gregory would put his arm around you and make you feel ten foot tall. Gordon Strachan would demand nothing less than 100 per cent.”
There are symmetries between football and music to be found and just maybe there is one Danny can look back on at this point. Just as he took in the sunset and sunrise in Ibiza all those years ago he will be going through that process of a chapter ending and a new dawn rising in the future as his playing days wind down. With the current state of play and the challenges to relish at his door though there is time yet before the sun sets. For now, we end with his selection of his best career teammates who he would have alongside him in a 5-a-side line-up. A choice of four modern Manchester United heroes would be too easy of course…so he just went with two of them!
“I’ve got to put Rory (Delap) in (midfield). I was with him at Derby, Southampton and Stoke and he made a big impression on me.
“Fabrizio Ravanelli (striker) – his professionalism and the way he carried himself off the pitch (at Derby) was brilliant. A defender, Jaap Stam – for the simple fact he was such a lovely fella and always had time for the youngsters at the club (Manchester United).
“In goal, Peter Schmeichel – he was unbelievable and just filled the goal and made himself favourite in any one-on-one, which I’ve never seen before. I remember when I’d broken my leg, I was only 17 at the time, he came over and said ‘Danny, if there’s anything I can do to help just let me know’, so that meant a lot.”
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