Danny Simpson holds up his phone and shows off the picture he still has as his background. He’s crouched on the pitch, a medal in his hand. His daughter Skye stands next to him, both of them in full kit, while the Premier League trophy, adorned in blue ribbons, sits on the grass.
A snapshot of the greatest moment in the right-back’s career. His place at the top of the mountain, the day he and his Leicester City team-mates were crowned the miraculous champions.
‘I look at this every single day,’ says Simpson, a smile spreading across his face.
Danny Simpson is staying and training at St George’s Park as he searches for a new club
Simpson has this picture of him and his daughter Skye after winning the Premier League title with Leicester five years ago as the background on his phone
Nearly five years have passed and much has changed. The former champion is without a club since leaving Huddersfield last season. A free agent in a pandemic. It’s not easy. He now spends four days a week at St George’s Park in a bid to get fit after a quad injury. Such is the state of the world now that he has just a physio, a phone and room service for company in his isolated hotel room.
He’s been there for six weeks. The first three are courtesy of his PFA membership. After that, it’s on him. The early starts. Mondays are double sessions. Tuesdays are tough too. Wednesday it’s recovery and ice baths but Thursdays are hell again. All to be ready in case the phone rings.
And he loves it. There’s no place Simpson would rather be.
‘When you have an operation and you’re sat at home on the sofa and you can’t move, it is not nice. You miss football, you miss training. You just want to get back on the grass. I was so excited two weeks ago when I got to kick a ball again. It was like I was 10 and my dad had just taken me onto the grass for the first time.
‘Sometimes when you don’t have something you realise how much you miss it. Even having that pain afterwards and being on your hands and knees. I am enjoying getting fit again. I’ll get up early and be ready to train hard. They’ve told me it’s going to be a tough day.’
The Team GB rowers are next door at St George’s. They really are fit. One of them, Jonny Walton, is a Leicester fan. ‘He looks about 6’4, he’s a machine,’ says Simpson. Walton messaged him and asked if Simpson fancied joining them for a session. ‘I saw their planner and they did 210km last week. I said “I don’t fancy that, mate”.’
Simpson is just focusing on what he needs to do. And it’s working. ‘I’m flying,’ says Simpson. ‘If a manager calls and something gets agreed, I can now go in tomorrow and train. You don’t want to be at a new team and stuck in the gym.’ There has been some interest from a few clubs.
Simpson suffered his injury while training at Leicester in the summer, his old club inviting him to keep fit with them as he searches for a new club. He retains a great relationship with his former employers and is still in WhatsApp groups with his old team-mates. He spoke to James Maddison after his match-winning display against Chelsea.
He’d been messaging Ben Chilwell too, who made a £60m move to Frank Lampard’s side in the summer. ‘He’s the type of lad who only wants to get better. I remember the cheeky little academy boy who came up to me at training. He said “Simmo no disrespect but I’m a lot quicker than you and you don’t get beat. I’m rapid. Why don’t you get beat?” I said “are you trying to say I’m slow?!”
Simpson says his fitness is good enough that he could be ready to play for a club immediately
The pandemic has changed how we all live. And football, like all industries, has felt the pinch. Clubs have tightened purse strings as gate receipts run dry. Lockdown and bubbles mean it’s not as easy for a free agent to flit around to prove he’s worth a shot.
But when asked about the difficulty of his predicament, Simpson is quick to remind that there are many, many more suffering in deeper ways than him.
‘It is but it is a tough time for everyone, for people who are working in the NHS, for people who are homeschooling. It is tough but there are a lot of people who are finding things a lot tougher.
‘It’s tough on people, it’s tough on families. I have a mate who has three kids and I’ve seen his homeschooling planner. Working with one kid, trying to get the other ones to concentrate.
‘So football-wise it’s tough and it’s new in terms of football, with (the loss of) money and no fans and clubs being very careful but again it’s how you want to look at it. I just want to play on a Saturday again because I speak to a lot of ex-players and once football stops it has stopped and you can’t get it back.
‘I’m fortunate enough that I’ve had a decent career and I’ve looked after everything well so I can’t sit here and say “yeah yeah I’m finding it tough”. It is affecting everybody.
‘I’m controlling what I can control, which is getting myself to St George’s Park every day, getting myself fit and at least I am able to do that – because I think training for your mental health is important and the gyms are shut, so I’m lucky.’
He signed with Huddersfield after leaving Leicester but left acrimoniously last summer
Simpson turned 34 earlier this month. After all he has achieved — three promotions at Sunderland, Newcastle and QPR as well as the ultimate prize — why keep going? He’s begun his move into television, a pundit on Sky Sports and working for MUTV, United’s in-house channel. He’s invested well over the years. He’s doing his coaching badges, too, alongside former team-mates Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Marc Albrighton, Christian Fuchs and Wilfred Ndidi.
He’s prepared for life after football. He just doesn’t want that to be yet. ‘I still want to play on a Saturday. I miss the banter. I still think there’s a lot to give, maybe get a team promoted. Those are the memories you remember. I have had a laugh with Gary Neville about playing for my hometown Salford. We’ll see what happens and I still feel like I can play in the in the Premier League and definitely the Championship.’
Simpson was back home in Manchester to watch Leicester sweep Chelsea aside on Tuesday night to go to the top of the Premier League. They are third now, after United and City both won, but Brendan Rodgers’ side are well in the title race at the halfway point.
They couldn’t do it again, could they?
Simpson laughs. ‘The story of five years ago shows you can never rule Leicester out,’ he says. ‘You look at what we did then and no one could believe it so why not believe them more this time? Leicester then compared to five years on – it’s a completely different club, the recruitment has been unbelievable.
‘Leicester have got one of the best mixes of youth and experience. You still have the older voices who will help the young lads. Kasper – never shuts up. Vards — the fact he is still scoring goals the way he has is phenomenal. Jonny Evans has been one of Leicester’s best ever signings for that price. £3m for a player like that?! I don’t think he gets spoken enough. Marc Albrighton has had to sit and bide his time and is back in the team. He was fantastic on Tuesday. It looks like they’re all enjoying themselves and they’ve got, for me, one of the best managers around. The sad thing for me is I didn’t get enough time with him.’
Simpson believes his former club are in a strong position to challenge for the Premier League
Simpson had a little over four months with Rodgers before his Leicester contract expired at the end of the 2018/19 season. It was then he joined Championship side Huddersfield who had lost seven of their first eight games of the campaign.
His arrival marked the beginning of a seven-game unbeaten run. Simpson started 23 league games and helped the Terriers survive. He should look back at his time there with fondness and, in part, he does. But the way it ended, in a manner Simpson has called ‘unprofessional’, will always leave a sour taste.
With the pandemic causing havoc in the football calendar, many players saw their contract extended by a month to see them to the end of the season. As far as Simpson was concerned, he thought he would see the campaign out. Suddenly, he wasn’t.
‘The way that got handled was wrong’ he says. ‘I thought I was staying until the end of the season, with this whole extra month situation. An hour and a half before kick-off (against Wigan) you get told it’s been taken off the table. I probably shouldn’t have played in that game because my head was all over the place but I didn’t want to let the lads down.’
Huddersfield lost 2-0. Simpson has not played football since. It’s another reason he keeps getting up, keeps training, keeps pushing. For all the wonderful chapters in his career, this is not the ending the script deserves.
‘That cannot be my last game. That cannot be how it ends. I want to take the moment in, I want to take this last team meeting in, take this last warm up in. I’m going to take this last walking out of the tunnel in. You want to enjoy it.’
Gary Neville has joked about Simpson signing for Salford but he wants to play at a higher level
The rest of it has been quite the ride.
‘If you’d told me at 16 that I’d get out of the Championship three times, with massive clubs. At Newcastle we even finished fifth with the best defence for keeping clean sheets. Quarter final of the Europa League. Then if you’d said I’d win the league with Leicester I’d have laughed at you and said you were lying. Come on. No one leaves Manchester United to go and win the Premier League somewhere else – and to have the chance to win it at Old Trafford.
‘That blew my mind. I’m glad it happened the way it happened, being at Vardy’s house the next day (when Tottenham drew 2-2 with Chelsea), but I’ll never forget that drive to Old Trafford. Driving to win the league at Old Trafford? It was like being in a computer game.
‘So, maybe if that was the last game at Huddersfield, right now I won’t be happy but maybe further down the line I will be. But right now the answer to that is no.’
How much has he changed over the years? ‘Loads. The person that walked into that dressing room at Leicester was probably a bit mad to be honest. I grew up in that five years. We all grew up together. It was special times.
‘I’d say it’s down to Leicester and what I learned from the club, from Vichai (the former chairman), even from Nigel Pearson. The way you conduct yourself, the way you show respect to others, the family that club is and what they stand for. The way the owners treat everyone the same. The closest I’d ever seen to that was Sir Alex. If you were the kitchen lady, or the cleaner, the stadium staff, he treated everyone the same. We are all human, all the same. A lot of that is seen from Leicester’s owners. You meet people in your life and they touch you.’
His daughter, Skye, is nearly 10. Simpson wants her to see him play again. ‘I won’t just be one of those dads who says “look at this picture of me”. He glances at the one on his phone. ‘I’m not sure she remembers it,’ he smiles. ‘I want her to be able to watch her dad one last time.’