David Preece: Waiting for the strutting Stefan Effenberg while away at one training camp was well worth it

Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland. Picture by FRANK REID
Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland. Picture by FRANK REID
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One of the best things to have happened to Sunderland this season was being drawn away to Arsenal in the FA Cup and taking the first exit point.

Without reducing the importance of the cup even further, it was a sideshow the club will be better without.

I would have paid to watch Stefan Effenberg strut about the park that day and always saw moments like that as perks of the job

David Preece

This season, more than any other, Premier League status is a must that matters more than silverware.

The players can now step away from the dog fight and recharge their batteries in Dubai, ready for another sequel to their own franchise of “The Great Escape”. Recuperation is as important as hard work and hopefully the time away will strengthen the togetherness needed in the coming weeks.

After last week’s performance the signs are good, so as the team take a break, I’m going to try to give us a holiday from the saga of Adam Johnson, a subject, the Echo’s lawyers tell me, that will keep for another time. This week, I’m going back to the winter of 2002/03.

As the players gathered on the pitch, somewhere in the hills behind Marbella on Spain’s Costa del Sol, the referee looked at agitatedly at his watch for the must have been the 10th tine and recounted the players around him; still only 21.

As the chill of the January morning was being lifted by the now brightly shining sun, words of broken English were shouted across one side of the pitch and met with a barking retort in German.

It seems our opponents were still a man short and their coaching staff were none the wiser as to where their AWOL player had got to.

Delays like this aren’t a rare occurrence. No matter how big the names of the two clubs are, the relaxed attitude of the officials who take charge of these mid and pre-season friendly games means kick-off times are an approximation, a guide as to when the match will begin rather than something set in stone.

Funnily enough, in the dozens of games I’ve ever played in Spain, the referee was as familiar as any of the star players that might be on show; always the same five foot three guy who gave the impression he had somewhere more important to be, but seeing as he was there anyway, he’d make sure the game revolved around him.

It was through a common sense of disillusionment from both sets of players that a bond was generally made. Often, the language barrier would temporarily be broken by just a brief glance of bewilderment between two opponents as the pint-sized umpire makes another baffling decision. Not that this was always a bad thing.

In the previous game against Sparta Prague, I attempted to roll the ball to one of my full backs, only for it to be cut out at source by their striker who I had failed to spot lurking at my shoulder.

As he nipped to take the ball from me and place it in my unguarded net, my pleas to the ref that he had kicked the ball from my hands were met with a nod of approval and the award of a free-kick was given my favour. Either he felt sorry for me or he wasn’t actually looking but either way, I was grateful for his incompetence.

Another incident in Xerez in Southern Spain saw me running the line after I was substituted at half-time because one of the original linesman had been called away by an emergency at his day job.

I’m sure I’ve ever been put in a more difficult position as I was trying desperately to get back in to the Aberdeen side at the time and every honest decision I made by calling an offside against my own team was met with a grunt of incomprehensible disagreement from my manager, Ebbe Skovdahl.

It was another 12 months before I started another first team game.

He was obviously a man who bore a grudge for those two goals disallowed because of my eagle-eyed vigilance that robbed us of a 6-4 win instead of the 4-4 draw it ended.

Compare that to my previous hoodwinking of the referee and there’s your evidence right there that honesty isn’t always the best policy.

For once though, the officials weren’t to blame for this hold-up. By now, footballs had been distributed by the coaches to the players on the pitch to keep themselves literally on ball and ready themselves for when we were ready to proceed.

Then, as the huffs of frustration grew more noticeable and the tapping of watch faces turned into more of a hammer, the door of of the pavilion flew open and out he strode, the missing member of the Wolfsburg side.

Everyone had been waiting for almost 15 minutes yet urgency seemed to be last thing on his mind.

In this situation you’d expect the player to make haste and run on to the pitch but not him.

Without any acknowledgement to his surroundings, he simply looked down at his own midriff as he tucked in his shirt and meticulously tied the string of his shorts and ambled the 20 or so yards from the dressing rooms to the pitch, his shock of white blond hair shining so bright it was if it was competing with the Spanish sun.

Chest puffed out and looking every inch of his six foot three frame, he calmly took his place in the centre of the pitch in full knowledge every pair of eyes had been tracking his every movement for the past 30 seconds.

His arrogance was almost admirable. So much so I wanted to applaud him on to the pitch for it.

I’m not sure whether he was expecting a guard of honour. Now that he had graced us with his presence, we were allowed to start. Stefan Effenberg; what a man.

The game itself wasn’t as interesting as his entrance, a 1-1 draw with Martin Petrov scoring for Wolfsburg and Effenberg barely mustering up so much as a jog all game as he effortlessly stroked the ball around the pitch.

I would have paid to watch him strut about the park that day and always saw moments like that as perks of the job.

Perhaps that was my problem at times, treating some of the players I played against as it was like spotting famous people when I’m in London rather than my peers.

I suppose the likes of Effenberg are different though. I could never see him looking at anyone and thinking they were on the same level as him but I loved him because of that all the same.