Preki: Nothing Beat Pressure Of Playing For Everton

Gifted attacking midfielder Preki was unknown in Europe when he joined Everton after seven years of indoor football in the USA.

In an interview originally published in Everton's matchday programme in March 2021, he explains why playing for the Club counts as a career highlight – despite an enduring frustration over never “finding his legs” in two seasons at Goodison Park.

Bob Gansler, the manager who ended the USA’s 40-year wait to qualify for a World Cup in 1990, is a shrewd judge of character.

Asked for his take on Preki, who had six seasons under Gansler at Kansas City Wizards, the veteran coach offered, “He’s certainly of the disposition that it’s okay to be perfect”.

Listening to Preki reveal his disappointment over failing to reach sky-high personal standards with Everton, you see where Gansler is coming from.

It wasn’t enough for the nimble forward, who grew up in Yugoslavia dreaming of making it big in basketball, to touch perfection as a genuine star of Major League Soccer for nine years.

Pedrag Radosavljevic, universally known as Preki, was twice named the league’s Most Valuable Player and twice its top scorer. His Kansas team were champions in 2000.

Preki “found my legs” back in the States, playing until the eye-popping age of 42.

His two seasons with Everton, after signing in the summer of 1992, were spent desperately trying to recover the snap and sparkle extinguished by seven years playing football almost exclusively indoors.

Suggest his MLS resurgence might qualify as the most enjoyable and satisfying years of Preki’s career, however, and the scrunched face tells you otherwise.

“It can’t compare with England,” says Preki.

“Those were my special days in football.

“The intensity and the demands from fans, even fighting relegation with Everton, nothing beats that.

“If you don’t feel that way, you have no place in the game.

“If you have no pressure, what’s the point?

“In MLS I had to put pressure on myself, there is no pressure from media.

“In England – and Serbia – there is scrutiny every day.”

Basketball was Preki’s “first love” as a boy in Belgrade.

He was 15 when a coach told him to bring his father to the next day’s practice.

Observing the teenager, five feet 10 inches on his tiptoes, towering over dad, the advice was to try for a footballing route out of Yugoslavia.

This was a decade before the outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars and, for Preki, life was good – but the country was economically squeezed and opportunities limited.

Playing his two favourites sports on the streets, Preki “learned how to win in different ways, in cunning ways”.

“In Serbia,” he explains, “sport is a way out.

“A lot of other kids want your job, so you are constantly under pressure.

“If you don’t make it before 20, 21, you are done.”

As a promising 16-year-old playing for Cukaricki in the Yugoslav third division, Preki observed a snaking queue of suitors and opted for glamorous Red Star Belgrade.

“A huge brand and huge club but, maybe, I should have chosen a smaller team,” says Preki.

“That is easier to see when you are older and wiser. I tell young players today to go and play, matches are where you grow as a person and player.”

You are an army guy, they prepare you like you are going to war tomorrow,. You learn how to shoot guns, all kinds of things.

Conscription stunted Preki’s progress, the only saving grace permission granted for professional athletes to train with their nearest club every afternoon.

“You are an army guy, they prepare you like you are going to war tomorrow,” says Preki.

“You learn how to shoot guns, all kinds of things.

“I did it for 13 months – previously the mandatory time was 18 months, so I was lucky.

“Five months is a big difference, believe me.

“It is like a nightmare, you are waiting 13 months to get out.

“But it was my obligation, hate it or not.”

Free to concentrate on football, Preki was banging at a bolted door at Red Star.

A loan to a Montenegrin team was “done” but – to the player’s ongoing surprise – the “tough guy” manager signing him allowed Preki to delay his arrival by 24 hours to compete in an annual tournament at home,

“In that extra day, everything happened,” says Preki of a chain of events that altered the course of his life.

Bob McNab, the coach of Washington Major Indoor Soccer League team Tacoma Stars, watched Preki dazzling in peculiar circumstances – “five against five on a big hockey field” – and “came down and offered me a contract on the spot”.

“I thought for five minutes and made the decision without asking for anybody’s advice,” says Preki.

Going home to tell his “completely shocked” mum remains a vivid memory, as does the telephone call to dad, in Montenegro waiting for his son.

“Going to Montenegro wouldn’t have solved our economic situation,” says Preki.

“My mum and dad were hard workers and did everything for me and my sister.

“It was difficult, difficult and difficult.

“They are normal people who didn’t need a lot for themselves and sacrificed for their kids.

“It was incredible motivation to get out and make something of myself – and thank God I did, because the situation in Serbia grew worse and worse.”

Preki ignored the razzamatazz of indoor soccer, the lights and music – “You feel like you’re in a show” – and compiled staggering numbers.

He is sixth for both assists and goals in the defunct competition – amassing 332 of each across five years with Tacoma and two seasons at St. Louis Storm.

Curiosity over what was being said about him in the dressing room, married to crippling telephone bills, persuaded an initially reluctant Preki to learn the language and after one year in Seattle he met wife Trish.

The football, he says, played in reduced numbers on artificial surfaces, was fast and combative “but not the real game”.

He was restless and concerned over being pigeon-holed as an indoor specialist when, out of the blue, a chance appeared in summer 1988 to try out with Portuguese top-division team Estrela da Amadora.

Preki turned up after “10 days lounging on the beach” and “felt like I was cooking” in a Lisbon furnace after 10 minutes of a pre-season game against Bristol City.

He impressed sufficiently before being carried off with debilitating cramp in both hamstrings and calves to earn a contract, nonetheless.

“But,” he says, “they put me in a tiny room with my wife, nobody was helping us and nobody spoke English.

“My wife started hating it, then I started hating it.”

Trish went home and Preki soon followed, returning to play for Tacoma.

“That is one of the things I regret most,” he says.

“I was young, my wife didn’t have a feel for life in Europe.

“We made an irrational decision, I should have taken time to think about it.

“I felt I’d wasted my chance.”

Preki fared better on a temporary stay with unheralded Swedish team Raslatts two years later and, thanks to the persistence of former Arsenal defender McNab – who “never lost faith in me, he always thought I was wasting my talent here” – got his major European break in 1992.

McNab fixed trials with Everton and Tottenham Hotspur but a groin problem prematurely ended Preki’s planned week in London.

He had a “better feeling” for Everton come decision time, then, and Howard Kendall’s £100,000 bid met the demand of St. Louis Storm owner Milan Mandaric, who rebuffed a cash offer from Bobby Robson’s PSV Eindhoven after Preki impressed training with the Dutch club.

Preki played 25 games – starting 15 – and scored three goals in his first Goodison Park campaign after overcoming a pre-season shoulder injury.

All the while, he harboured an underlying irritation over Evertonians seeing a monochrome version of a player capable of shining in spellbinding technicolour.

“I always felt I had a lot of catching up to do,” begins Preki, who immediately settled in West Derby, close to the Club’s old Bellefield training ground.

“It took me two years to get my legs. When I was young, I had an extra gear and could go past people with ease.

“When I got my legs back, even in my mid-30s, I was able to do things on my own, I never depended on anyone else.

“It was so frustrating for me at Everton.

“You could see what I had in certain moments but I wanted to be more.

“Physically, it was not realistic because of how much I lost playing here [United States].

“I would go back to the training ground every afternoon for extra work, boxing training, all sorts.

“When you spend seven years away from the game, it is so difficult.

“I knew, knew, I had so much more to offer.

“I wish I was at Everton when I was young and in my prime.”

Manager Kendall, says Preki, was “a good man, great for a laugh, a great human being”.

It was so frustrating for me at Everton. You could see what I had in certain moments but I wanted to be more.

Mike Walker, who took over in January 1994, gave Preki a six-game run early in his reign and the player’s goal in a 2-1 win over Oldham Athletic would prove crucial when Everton escaped relegation by two points.

Other than 21 minutes off the bench in an edgy 0-0 draw with Coventry City, however, Preki didn’t get a sniff in the closing nine matches.

Kendall had been appointed at Greek club Xanthi and was on the phone at the end of the season.

“He called every day for a while, I said, ‘I didn’t know you liked me this much’,” laughs Preki.

It is likely Kendall recognised that a revivified Preki, released from a confrontational English game, ill-suited to slender, silky, ball-playing technicians, would qualify as a significant asset.

“I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anybody else when I went to Everton,” says Preki.

“I was trying to prove to myself that I was talented enough to play there.

“I know I was.

“It was difficult because the ball was in the air a lot.

“Some games – like against Wimbledon – I touched the ball five or six times.

“Players were afraid to give you the ball if someone was half a yard away from you.

“I never cared about that.

“Half a yard for me is an acre of space.

“If your first touch is good, it doesn’t matter how close your opponent is.

“Ability and skill are appreciated in the Premier League today.

“When I played, it was grind, work, second balls, head balls.”

Preki declined Kendall’s Greek invite and eventually joined Portsmouth where “the crowd loved me”.

“I could do nothing for 80 minutes,” he continues, “then two good things in the last 10 minutes – and I’d go with my wife, or the guys, for a bevvy after the game and the beer was coming from here and there.”

Preki had chances to stay in England after his season with Portsmouth but – at 32 – the priority was acquiring American citizenship.

He did a “favour” for Mandaric – who would eventually buy Portsmouth after being introduced by Preki to the club’s powerbrokers – briefly playing indoors for the businessman’s San Jose Grizzlies.

Nine years of MLS football followed – all with Kansas City, bar the 2001 season spent at Miami Fusion.

A USA international career which began aged 33 yielded 28 caps.

Preki scored the only goal of a Gold Cup semi-final against world champions Brazil in 1998 and appeared in his adopted country’s three games at the World Cup later the same year.

“I take a lot of pride in that [international recognition], I worked hard to get there and proved to people impossible is sometimes possible,” says Preki.

Preki’s extraordinary longevity – determined to retire on his own terms, he overcame a fibula fracture and left-ankle dislocation in February 2004 to play the 2005 season – owes a lot to the revitalising qualities of yoga.

“I was going to retire at 35,” says Preki, who will turn 58 in June.

“I’d lost flexibility. I’d train hard, then couldn’t train for the next two days.

“I told my wife I was done and she suggested Yoga.

“I thought it was some bogus thing.

“The first time I went it was me and 14 women and when I saw what they could do, I was in shock.

“I looked like a 95-year-old guy.

“After three sessions, I started feeling different.

“If you keep your range of motion, you can play.

“Players finish because someone passes a ball to their side and they can barely lift their leg.”

Preki is currently preparing for a fourth MLS season as assistant coach at 2019 champions – and 2020 runners-up – Seattle Sounders.

His passion for coaching represents a giant leap for a man who “didn’t think it was for me”.

Trish nudged her husband after repeatedly listening to gripes over the quality of training sessions provided for daughter Natasa. 

“Once I stepped on the field to coach that was it,” says Preki, whose son Nikola was born in Liverpool in 1993.

“I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

“I had so much passion. I’m a calm man but when I’m coaching, people say, ‘Who is this guy?’”

Preki’s demanding and cajoling borrows from his most influential youth coach, Mirko Dakic, who “was incredibly hard on me because he saw the ability I had”.

He accepted his current post in January 2018 after spells managing Chivas USA, Toronto FC, Sacramento Republic and Saint Louis FC.

Prior to Claudio Ranieri’s appointment at Leicester City, in summer 2015, Preki was heavy favourite with bookmakers for the job.

The rumours, he insists, were baseless.

“But,” adds Preki, “there was interest from a Championship team and I wish it happened.

“I am not too old, so you never know.

“I am very ambitious and incredibly dedicated to this side of the game.

“I am an attacking coach… not the guy who wants to sit back and stress on the bench (crosses arms and hunches shoulders).

“Regardless of money or economics, I always managed to implement the style I wanted.”

Preki’s uncooperative legs prevented him from doing the same at Everton but the chase for perfection shows no signs of slowing.