I owe my career to a missed flight … now Friedel is aiming to ground United's title bid
There was a time when American
footballers – that is, soccer players from the United States – would
have caused a raised eyebrow in Britain.
It was a time when English
schoolchildren were told of the 1-0 defeat by the USA in the 1950 World
Cup finals in the hushed tones reserved for particularly shameful
episodes in the nation's sporting life, and American sportsmen – no one
seriously considered women to be footballers – in global terms were
confined to boxing, golf, tennis or athletics. Anything but football.
It was the Eighties, and Brad Friedel
was a boy growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, eagerly awaiting his monthly
delivery of Soccer Digest, a round-up of two-month-old European football
results which, in an age before the internet, was the only connection
to a game in faraway Europe, other than the occasional Liverpool and
Bayern Munich matches on TV.
Still going strong: Brad Friedel is enjoying his football
It was a world in which sophisticated global scouting networks did not exist. Nor did Major League Soccer. The much-vaunted North American Soccer League was about to collapse, a financial failure.
So, for a 10-year-old American, who would pretend to be Jean-Marie Pfaff, the great and eccentric Belgian and Bayern keeper, aspirations would be winning a college scholarship to play soccer … if he was fortunate.
So how does this American come to be the Premier League keeper with the most consecutive appearances, 301 No 302 will come when the consistent Friedel is Tottenham's last line of defence in their key title showdown against Manchester United at White Hart Lane.
'Luck,' says Friedel. 'It's all luck. Back then (in the Eighties) I played ice hockey, I played tennis, I played basketball, I played baseball, I played American Football. But I loved playing soccer. But with no professional league, if you were lucky enough to get seen at local tournaments you got called into state or regional camps. I always made it to a certain level but my parents wouldn't have enough money to pay for the next level, so I'd go back to playing basketball. You didn't need money to do that.
'How I got to university was a flip of a coin. The assistant manager of UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Dean Wurzberger missed his flight so came back to where our game was playing. He saw me, called Sigi Schmid (then UCLA head coach), who's now the Seattle Sounders head coach, and said, “There's a goalkeeper here I think we've missed, you've got to see him”. That's how it all started.
'If he hadn't missed his flight there's no way I'd be here now. I'd have gone to university. I'd have been playing a different sport, but would I have been a pro I played a lot of tennis and got scholarship offers. Basketball as well. I'd never have been a pro in basketball; tennis would have depended on how much dedication I put into it, but I didn't love it that much. Ice Hockey Possibly. That's a great sport!'
And that would have meant missing out on, among other things, this most stunning of Spurs campaigns, which reaches another momentous high with the visit of United.
Tottenham have not beaten United since 2001, so long ago that Les Ferdinand was the last Spurs player to score a winning goal against them.
'I played against Les, what are you saying' smarts Freidel, before addressing the obstacle of United. 'I think that when you've had a result – not so much a result as a performance like ours at Arsenal, especially in the second half – I think it's great to get back to White Hart Lane against one of the big teams. Our record at the Lane is very good. The players all want to prove that was a one-off last Sunday.'
Last Sunday, of course, was that horrific 5-2 loss at The Emirates which following the 0-0 draw at Stevenage in the FA Cup, has prompted many to suggest Harry Redknapp's men are about to run out of steam.
Friedel, as befits his age, is sceptical, even amused by it all and able to put the instant media analysis into perspective.
'I've done TV and radio, and when results happen, you have to answer questions you are asked at the time. So it can look like it's all dead and buried, then all of a sudden next week's results come and then you say, “Oh hang on a second, they're still in it”. And that's how it is.'
Bad day at the office: Brad Friedel watches as Theo Walcott scores for Arsenal
Wise words from someone who is no longer the all-American boy. He is middle aged ,for one thing, at 40. And although he subscribes to the theory that 'all goalkeepers are probably a little bit loopy in certain ways', he is the epitome of solidity and stability.
He has lived in this country for 14 years and, since his summer move from Aston Villa to Tottenham, he is happily settled in the outer London suburb of Theydon Bois.
For wife Tracy and his three children, aged eight, five and nine months, the move could not have worked out better, he says. And he happens to be playing in the best team he has experienced in his long and notable career.
'When I first signed at Liverpool (in 1997-98), they had a really good squad. This is comparable, if not better. The first year I was at Liverpool, Mark Wright had a bad back injury and we were probably a centre-half away from …'
He tails off, but he means the league title that has eluded Liverpool for almost 22 years.
Good times: But Friedel didn't play often enough at Liverpool
'Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and Paul Ince, Karlheinz Riedle and Patrick Berger. We had some really good attacking players. Michael Owen coming on the scene and Steven Gerrard coming on the scene. The years ahead looked promising for Liverpool, and that's really similar to our squad here.
'I had four offers in the summer. I didn't choose the one with the highest financial reward, I chose what I thought was the best squad and the best opportunity.'
More significantly, he turned down Liverpool.
Other than Pfaff, he had idolised Ray Clemence and Bruce Grobbelaar. He visited England in 1980 for the Charity Shield between Liverpool and West Ham, a 1-0 win for the Reds, which confirmed him as a fan. But his first spell at Anfield ended in disappointment.
He had never been able to establish himself as the No 1 and played just 25 games in three seasons. The chance to go back must have been tempting
Idol: Friedel was a big fan of Bruce Grobbelaar
'Absolutely. Kenny (Dalglish) was very much above board. said that he could offer me the world, offer me a lot of things, but he couldn't offer me first-team football enough. I had a tough decision but after I had met the (Tottenham) chairman, after I had met the gaffer, and you really see the squad and infrastructure at the club … it was clear that the ambition was to get bigger, better.'
He adds: 'You can never tell someone you're going to come in and play in every game because you have to keep your form going and we have a lot of good keepers at this club.
'(But) I never signed a contract in my career to be a No 2. I felt that if I had chosen Liverpool, I was sort of signing (for) my retirement.'
Weighty or Wimpy David De Gea has been told by Sir Alex Ferguson he needs to beef up though Brad Friedel reckons size isn't everything. But our stats add weight to the belief that big teams like big keepers.
All very reasonable, sensible even, as you might expect from a man known for his consistency, famed for his maturity.
One question remains, however. How could such a well-balanced individual choose Jean Marie Pfaff as a role model
'He wore yellow. He was mental. I've met him a few times. Nice guy but he's crazy. He was the one I wanted to be like. I'd make a save and say, “I'm Pfaff'. But I couldn't be any more different than Jean- Marie Pfaff's style'.
Indeed. But he's travelled a long way since those days in which he emulated Jean-Marie Pfaff.