Danny Welbeck is conflicted. No, not the choice Manchester United’s 20-year-old striker has between England and Ghana – surely any sane footballer would have chosen the West African World Cup quarter-finalists – but that of his club future. Welbeck, recently returned from a two month spell on the sidelines with a knee injury, must decide whether to stay at Old Trafford next season or seek another move out on loan. It is a choice that could define a career.
Sir Alex Ferguson, long a vocal admirer on the Longsight-born striker, says that Welbeck will return to Old Trafford after an “excellent” season on-loan at Steve Bruce’s Sunderland. The forward has scored six Premier League goals in 26 appearances, often from a wide position that demonstrates not only the player’s potential but flexibility to boot. It’s a quality that is highly admired by Ferguson.
Yet Welbeck could find himself one of six front-line strikers at Untied next season, potentially behind Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Dimitar Berbatov and Federico Macheda in the pecking order. That is without factoring in Bébé and Gabriel Obertan or the – admittedly remote – possibility that Michael Owen may sign a new one-year contract.
By contrast Welbeck admits he has made rapid progress under Bruce’s tutelage. Not least because when fit the youngster has played more often that not. There’s nothing like experience to accelerate the development curve in a raw player.
“I am delighted with my progress,” says Welbeck.
“[Making an England début] was invaluable in terms of my progress and I’ll take that in my stride. It is nothing to sit on because I’ve not done anything at all yet and I’m really looking to push on and keep improving as a player.
“I’m pretty happy with the progress I’ve made this season and I feel being at Sunderland this season has really helped me. The manager, Steve Bruce, and coaching staff have been really terrific and I’ve learnt a lot.”
Welbeck’s England début marked another destination in a sometimes rocky road the striker has travelled. Long admired at Old Trafford, Welbeck has suffered both from injury and growth spurts that hampered his development. At times devastatingly inventive and skillful; on other occasions seemingly ill at ease in his own body.
The best of Welbeck was arguably seen at Stamford Bridge earlier this season when the 20-year-old, in tandem with Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan, was instrumental in the Wearsiders’ 3-0 win over Chelsea. It was a performance that demonstrated both Welbeck’s appreciation of his teammates, the geometry of football and his goalscoring prowess.
The latter is, of course, an area in which Welbeck must develop if he is to force his way into both the England and United teams on a more permanent basis. The striker’s six goals this season represent decent progress but nothing more than that. The forward has just five goals in 24 appearances in a United shirt, while at international youth level the striker has scored at less than one in three games in the under-17, under-19 and under-21 age groups.
Meanwhile his club manager Bruce was understandably delighted for the player, not least because Welbeck played for the under-21s last Thursday too. The international minutes should accelerate the striker’s return Sunderland’s first team picture, if not help Bruce’s long-held wish to take Welbeck to the Stadium of Light permanently.
“It was great news for Sunderland, and for the boy who really deserves the accolades,” 50-year-old Bruce told TalkSport.
“It’s testament to what he’s achieved since being here We’ll try our best [to get him] but Manchester United have got another really, really good fantastic player and it’s not often you can buy a very good young player off anybody.
“I need to go and get Sir Alex and get few bottles of red wine down him. Before he got injured a couple of months ago he had seven goals in nine appearances and was starting to produce performances which were way above his age.”
Not that Sunderland would be the only suitors should Ferguson allow Welbeck to move on, either on loan or permanently. Indeed, recent tabloid newspaper reports have mooted Welbeck as a make-weight in United’s long-running pursuit of Everton’s midfielder Jack Rodwell.
Indeed, leaving Old Trafford on loan afforded Welbeck an opportunity to play that would not have been so at United this season, especially with Hernández’ rapid development and Berbatov’s goalscoring. It is a dilemma that Welbeck may need to overcome again this summer: return to Old Trafford and be part of a squad system, or leave on loan and continue to progress.
It is a choice that will define a players short and long-term future.