MAIN INTERVIEW, MATCHDAY PROGRAMME v ASTON VILLA, NOVEMBER 21
Up against his former club this evening, Brad Friedel knows it’s going to take another strong performance from him and his team-mates to keep our Premier League points tally ticking over. Jon Rayner reports.
Brad Friedel is likely to continue his unprecedented run of Barclays Premier League appearances against some familiar faces this evening as we do battle with his former employers Aston Villa – but his focus will purely and simply be on helping us to keep our own run intact.
Our former US international goalkeeper will make his 277th consecutive appearance in English football’s top division if, as expected, he features tonight against the club for whom he played in 114 of those games.
It is a truly remarkable run, which began on August 14, 2004, at Ewood Park, when he made his debut for Blackburn Rovers in a 1-1 draw against West Bromwich Albion, and has lasted throughout seven entire league campaigns and 10 matches into the 2011-12 season.
And every time he pulls on our goalkeeping jersey, Brad’s run just keeps on going – and shows no sign of ending any time soon. But he fully admits that he has needed a little lady luck along the way, not least in March, 2009, when he was sent off playing for Villa in a 5-0 drubbing against another of his former clubs Liverpool at Anfield, for a foul on Fernando Torres.
A one-game suspension meant his run of matches looked set to end at 182 – which still would have been a Premier League record – but Villa appealed and the decision was overturned by the FA, leaving Brad free to continue doing what he does best.
“I’ll have to admit that the run is a hard number of games to achieve,” said the Ohio-born shot-stopper, who insists he’s just been fortunate along the way. “There have been times when I’ve had a knock or not been feeling great, but maybe it has happened during an international break, or early in the week which gave me time to recover. There has been a huge element of luck.
“But I’ve never wheeled myself out onto the pitch when I haven’t felt I can do a job for the team, I’ve always felt fit and ready to play and the run is almost just coincidental. I’ve never been selected, or asked to play, just to keep the run going.”
While the sequence of matches is often a topic of conversation when Brad plays, so is his age. At 40-years-old, only eight players older than Friedel have played in the Premier League but although he can appreciate the interest surrounding the appearance record, he feels discussions relating to his age are a little misguided.
“I do think people are putting a little too much emphasis on the whole age thing really,” he explained. “Goalkeepers have always tended to play to a good age anyway, but these days with the sports science departments at football clubs, with all the focus on nutrition and health, together with the less distance that we have to cover in training and in matches, why shouldn’t a keeper play well into his 40s?
“I don’t find it remarkable that a 40-year-old can still play. My body doesn’t feel the way someone might think a 40-year-old should feel. I don’t wake up every morning and think ‘Oh no, I’m 40, I don’t feel like training today!’
“If you can keep yourself free of major injury and you want to keep playing, then you can play for a while, much longer than an outfield player could. It can be done, if you want it – and I certainly do.”
Barring any kind of disaster, Brad will be back between the sticks this evening as we welcome Alex McLeish’s Aston Villa to the Lane, looking to extend our own current run of seven wins and a draw from our last eight Premier League matches.
Villa arrive in N17 having lost just twice in the division so far this season – like ourselves – although they are yet to register an away win in the league from five attempts. Brad spent three years with the Villa Park club and admits to still retaining a soft spot for them.
“They are a tremendous football club with a big following and the owner and chief executive are terrific people,” he said. “They really went for it over the time I was there trying to get into the Champions League spots and brought some tremendous players into the squad.
“It was just a shame that they had a year when most of the headlines were about off the field stuff rather than what was happening on the pitch, which made it difficult for them to thrive.
“Everyone can see how good a player Stilyan Petrov is; they have a very good goalkeeper in Shay Given; one of the best centre-back pairings in the league in Richard Dunne and James Collins; Gabby Agbonlahor is playing exceptionally well, while Emile Heskey always puts a shift in and makes it difficult for defenders. And Villa also have some talented youngsters such as Marc Albrighton, Chris Herd and Barry Bannan.
“Obviously it will be nice to see some friendly faces in the opposition dressing room tonight, but once the whistle blows I’ll just be concentrating on trying to help us to win the game. This will be a very difficult match for us, they like to play football but so do we, so it could be entertaining.”
Victory this evening would further demonstrate our current fine form, which continued last time out with a 3-1 win at Craven Cottage against Fulham. But that was certainly far from a straight-forward success and we needed a number of fine second half saves from Brad to preserve our advantage at 2-1 as Fulham put us under some real pressure, before Jermain Defoe’s last-minute strike sealed the points.
“It was a crazy game at Fulham, but then every match is different in this division,” said Friedel. “You can never look at a game on paper and think it’s definitely one you can win, or draw. And you are never safe in the Premier League, even when you go 2-0 up, goals change games and that was the case at Fulham.
“They were on top of us from minute one in the second half and when they got their goal, we knew we would have to be more resilient at the back because we weren’t playing our football at that stage. But it was good to see that we really wanted that win and were able to navigate through a difficult period to get the three points.
“When you technically don’t deserve to win and yet you come away with the points, it is obviously a good sign for a team. But we don’t want to experience too many halves of football like that because we won’t always get the result we want,” added Brad, who then agreed with the suggestion that his job been made slightly easier with the arrival of Scott Parker as a defensive shield and the fact that Ledley King has been a familiar face at the heart of our defence in league games.
“Scott has been tremendous since he joined. Quite often fans don’t maybe appreciate the quality of a player because they might only see them once when they play against their team at home. It’s not until you watch someone play week in, week out that you really see their talents and our fans are certainly seeing that with Scott now, just what a great player he is.
“Ledley is a very important player, as you would expect of a club captain. He is a very strong defender and it’s great to see him in the team. He always performs to a high standard and leads by example, a quality player.
“But then we have got a really strong squad with a lot of different characteristics and we can score goals from all over the park. We’re in good shape at the moment and I’m hoping that can continue for some time.”