Webb wilts under burden of abuse

Brentford manager stung by fans' venom
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The Independent Online
David Webb recently appeared on Richard Littlejohn's television show Do I Not Like That. The Brentford manager gave an assured performance and received a thank you letter from the host, but he won't be going back. Once a distinguished member of football's clattering classes, he is less at ease among the chattering variety.

"I'd never seen the programme," he explains. "I didn't dislike it, but I wouldn't have gone on it if I'd realised, because it was a programme where it was pulling people to pieces. There was a guy who tried to slaughter Ruud Gullit. I wanted to laugh. It makes television, but it doesn't make life better. And that's why it's very difficult to enjoy."

The "it" is football, an increasing burden for Webb. The temptation is to portray the buccaneering hero of Chelsea's 1970 FA Cup triumph as a cheerful cockney. Right now he is about as lighthearted as Brian Mawhinney.

In his fourth season with the club, Webb has kept them in the Second Division's top three for seven months now, but a foiled spring, including Saturday's home defeat by Crewe, has increased the prospect of the dreaded play-offs and left Webb in maudlin mode.

His answer to the first question - what does he enjoy about being a football manager - set the tone. "I've got to say I don't enjoy it. Not any more," he says.

Five weeks ago he offered his resignation after being upset by the abuse he received from the Brentford fans watching their team lose at Preston. The club had been leading the division for three months. Webb now accepts there was an element of psychology in his actions - trying to deflect criticism from the players - but there was genuine emotion as well.

Emotion, too, at the "unbelievable" response which helped persuade him to stay.

Fans these days have changed the lot of the manager, he thinks. Fuelled by Premiership aspirations and with more outlets for their views, there is a constant barrage of criticism. "The thing is with David Mellor, and the fellah Baker, and now the Littlejohn thing, they're all all right but most people who are reasonable don't bother to phone those programmes. So what you've actually got is an encouragement to those with a grievance."

Webb has always received letters from Livid, of west London, but they upset him more now. "I find they hurt. I get up sometimes and I think, 'Why am I doing this?' I've got a letter here," he says, pointing to his kit bag, "a girl wrote to me slagging me off about something I did the other night, challenging what I'm doing as a manager."

The incident saw Webb race to the touchline and shout at Marcus Gayle ("It was my own psychological way of winding him up"). Gayle had apologised to his manager that morning, and the two were the last off the training pitch, having spent an extra half hour practising crosses, but Webb sighs: "I can't tell people about that."

Sitting in the manager's dressing-room at Brentford's training ground just opposite Kempton Racecourse, the craggy features, with the famous Desperate Dan chin, have a careworn look. But, having turned 51 at the beginning of the month, he could still pass for 10 years younger. Webb needs a shower and has an appointment with his chairman, but shows no signs of being in a hurry.

His disaffection is not with football, just football management. "I like watching football, but being a manager has taken the social side out of it." He has been to only a couple of social games this season but one of those - 10 days ago at Southend - only made it worse. "I heard the abuse that someone was hurling at Ronnie Whelan, and I thought 'what makes us want to do it'?"

Which makes you wonder why Webb still does it. Having offered his resignation more times than your average minister would consider prudent, (once, successfully, at Southend; twice, unsuccessfully, at Brentford) it is not as though he has no alternative. Famously entreprenurial, he is graduating from being the game's Arthur Daley to its F W Woolworth. "I deal in anything," he says, and he's about to take on 8,000 square feet of warehousing and retailing space in Benfleet, Essex.

What's more, the career structure for managers in the lower divisions seems to be crumbling. Webb was in charge at Chelsea for three months, keeping them in the Premiership, and turned down Southampton soon after joining Brentford. But he realises that in football's changed world there might not be another chance to operate at the highest level.

"I look at things like Everton. And I look at the fellah who's done so well at Stockport [David Jones]. He was an old Evertonian, you'd think it would be the first port of call. But you just wonder now, what determines who is a good manager?"

A couple of years ago a chairman asked Webb for advice about who to appoint as his manager. "This was at a time when Jim Smith was out of work. I said 'go and get him, Jim Smith, he knows his way around'. He said 'My people have told me he might be too old'. So they got a young bloke and they got relegated."

Yet for all his weariness Webb is not cynical, and the feeling remains that he will see out a contract that takes him to May 1998. For one thing he still has sympathy for the players. He recalls with a chuckle that, when he joined Chelsea from Southampton nearly 30 years ago, he was prepared to accept a drop in wages from pounds 85 to pounds 65 a week because it was a step up. That would not happen now, even at Brentford, where only one of his squad has been happy to sign up to the year 2000.

Players have not changed much, though. "Not really. I just think everybody's grown up differently. I could have an old Jag in that day, and I was seen to be doing all right. You get a geezer now, who's on the dole, and he's got an old Jag."

Mind you, an appearance in the play-offs will surely test him. Webb loathes them, which is not exactly the Bees line, as they were pioneered by his chairman, Martin Lange.

"All they do is create disappointment," Webb says, and he is equally unhappy that, with many more important games at the end of the season, the opportunities to blood youngsters are drastically reduced.

"Traditionally this was a time when you said: 'I've got four good young kids, let's give them a game'. I started like that. I played in a game with Colin Bell when he was at Bury, in another at Preston when they had Howard Kendall."

Webb's experience in the play-offs two years at Brentford was a bad one, eliminated by a penalty shoot-out when finishing second did not bring automatic promotion because of league restructuring. "You think, I've just taken all this lovely medicine all year to get yourself better and at the last minute," he clicks his fingers, "oh, and by the way, you're still ill." Webb looks up, the memory a painful one. "That is why you can't enjoy it."