Just like watching Brezil
By Matt Rowson
I was in South Africa last week.
A ridiculously fleeting business visit involving two overnight flights and just one full day in Durban (brevity necessitated by the absence of any spare holiday) but long enough to be completely won over by the place. Universally affable (Tsega says this is an Africa thing, no evidence so far to contradict this), strikingly beautiful and, at this time of year, of a climate that made the cold snap in England all the harder to counter when I got back.
And of course football is enormous, even forgetting the anticipation already bubbling with respect to the 2010 World Cup. A couple of days isn't a huge amount of time to get a feel for the domestic scene, of which my knowledge was pretty much limited to the names of the Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates beforehand. However, the fact that South African television seems to labour under very little constraint as far as televising games is concerned (simultaneous domestic fixtures on different channels on the Wednesday evening), plus the copy of "Soccer Laruma" purchased at Johannesburg airport and, of course, the willingness of just about everybody to discuss any subject at any length and football in particular made catching up reasonably straightforward.
So what did I learn? Kaizer Chiefs are the Manchester United, the team that everyone hates unless they actively support them - at least in Durban - and much amusement is gleaned from them labouring in sixth. Orlando Pirates are top without really convincing anyone; Mamelodi Sundowns are second, and their game against SuperSport United is one of the two almost-live broadcasts on in the bar of the hotel. Sundowns sport yellow shirts with a green and blue trim (Diadora's trademark shoulder stripes) and blue shorts - "The South Efrican Brezil!" explains the bartender. "They don't f***ing play like Brezil," growls someone from further down the bar, with a degree of bitterness that might betray a degree of affiliation.
That's the thing though. People watch the football, all the time, but ask anyone who they support and the answer is depressingly consistent.
The Premiership (not Premier, not a Ship), of course, is only absent from the screens by virtue of the international break in the UK, otherwise it's wall to wall as each of my two taxi drivers (both United fans) explained. And if the Mamelodi Sundowns and their ilk on the other side of the world lose out to Manchester United's grotesquely inappropriate global superbrand, it's hard to see how the likes of Preston North End, relatively round the corner, are supposed to compete.
Which is a bit of a shame all round, because trips to Deepdale have generally been an enjoyable exercise, albeit that it's a bloody long way (if nearer than Durban) and despite the fact that we never bloody win there (twenty five years and counting). Added to that, Preston have a sound manager and a decent squad that's probably better than their current league position would suggest - and will provide a tough old test on Saturday.
As is traditional, Preston as losing play-off finalists took a while to get going this season following May's disappointment and the subsequent departures of both Eddie Lewis and Richard Cresswell to Leeds. They didn't record a victory at Deepdale until this month, but have won their last two at home and are now nine without defeat in the League, albeit six of those nine have been draws.
In the absence of the injured Andy Lonergan, the only current injury absentee, Carlo Nash has established himself in goal after four years of pissing around on the bench at Man City and Middlesbrough having come to prominence at Stockport. He had a decent game at QPR on Tuesday by all accounts; Gavin Ward is cover, but is not always named amongst the substitutes by Billy Davies.
Graham Alexander will get stick for his historical connections, but has actually been at Preston since before the First World War. He is approaching his seven hundredth senior appearance, and should line up on the right. Matt Hill is gradually earning plaudits on the left, whilst in the centre skipper Chris Lucketti and the monstrous Jamaican Claude Davis appears to be the favoured combination with Youl Mawene a very capable stand-in on the bench.
In midfield, the central pair is likely to comprise two of Paul McKenna, Brian O'Neil and David Jones. McKenna is another who's been at North End forever; a scorer at Vicarage Road last season, his form this campaign hasn't been totally convincing. The experienced O'Neil is the "sorter", but popular Manchester United loanee Jones is perhaps likely to get a run out at home. Adam Nowland, on loan from Forest, can play in the centre of midfield or "in the hole" behind the main striker, but Dickson Etuhu, who memorably battered Jordan Stewart on the opening day, has joined the roadcrash at Carrow Road on loan.
On the flanks, two players who seem to be winning the fans round after slow starts to their Preston careers; Chris Sedgwick, a popular player at Rotherham and increasingly so here should play on the right, whilst Callum Davidson will play on the left. A recipient of some stick in the past, Davidson's committed approach and return to full fitness following several years interrupted by injury has allowed him to win many over. He's still on the slow side though, and benefits from the pace of Hill overlapping alongside him.
Up front, Preston don't seem short of options. David Nugent went off at half time on Saturday amidst rumours of medial ligament damage again curtailing his season, but confounded expectation by appearing off the bench at Loftus Road on Tuesday, coming on to score with his first touch in an energetic display. With every Everton defeat a January bid seems more likely, but for the moment Nugent is likely to regain a starting spot alongside the quick and persistent Patrick Agyemang. Daniele Dichio should be on the bench, but few are convinced by his signing yet, as you'd expect, whilst further options are provided by Dave Hibbert, signed from Port Vale over the summer, and Jemal Johnson, a talented but raw loan signing from Blackburn.
The absence of Clarke Carlisle from our defence makes this fixture a more challenging prospect still; coming away with anything from Deepdale will send us into two winnable home fixtures with our tails up. We've taken seven good points from our last three so-so performances, but another away win here really would add weight to the heady promotion bluster.