Like many football fans, one of my earliest football memories was nothing to do with anything that happened on the pitch but was an incident that occurred in the stands of Cardiff Arms Park involving a young, foul-mouthed Welsh fan and my late grandfather, Reg Harrison. I originally herald from the infamous town in the South Wales Valleys of Merthyr Tydfil, as did Welsh football international Mark Pembridge – a fact I was aware of from a young age. The 2nd ever Wales match I would ever attend, after watching Wales thrash San Marino 6-0 at the Arms Park, would be a World Cup 98 qualifier against a strong Dutch team featuring Clarence, Seedorf, the De Boer twins and Edwin Van der Sar. I was only 8 at the time and remember very little from the game, but I am told by my brother (who is my other half in writing this blog by the way – @theglobalgnome) that I witnessed one of the greatest individual performances I would ever see, as Clarence Seedorf had his wicked way with a decent Welsh team. All I can really remember is Pierre Van Hooijdoink coming off the bench and devastating the Wales team with 2 late goals and a Welsh fan sitting next to me launching a foul mouthed tirade on the then Wales manager, Bobby Gould, on his decision to substitute Mark Pembridge. It turned out the fan sitting next to me lived on the same street as Pembridge and was not happy to see his neighbour substituted. My Grandpa Reg, being a class act, did not take nicely to the young man’s four letter rant on Gould in front of two of his grandchildren and launched a verbal attack of his own on my neighbouring supporter – he soon shut him up. Every time I hear Pembridge’s name mentioned, this memory is the first thing that comes into my mind.
I also recall going on a school visit to Pen-y-Dre High School, near Merthyr Tydfil’s infamous Gurnos estate, to have a guitar lesson by Van Morrison’s guitarist Ned Edwards (sounds strange, I know) and being greeted in the main entrance of the school by a signed football shirt; on closer inspection I discovered it was signed ‘Mark Pembridge’ and the shirt was the famous red of the Águias (The Eagles): S.L. Benfica.
On mentioning the name ‘Mark Pembridge’ to most football fans, they would think of a unremarkable footballer with an unremarkable career, but many Welsh football fans would berate this claim and defend a very underrated player. Also more intact with this blog, he is a Lost Boyo, something many football fans don’t realise, after he had a stint at Portuguese giants, Benfica.
Pembridge was part of a British armada which would flood the Portuguese club under the legendary Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness’ managerial tenure. Pembridge would join the likes of Steve Harkness, Brian Deane, Gary Charles and Michael Thomas all signed by Souness, as well as Scott Minot who was already at the club, in trying to take the Portuguese league by storm. Souness decided to opt for what he knew rather than delving himself into the unknown of the Portuguese transfer market. This would not be the first time Souness had tried to create a British culture at a foreign club having taken another Lost Boyo, Dean Saunders, at the ripe old age of 31 with him to Galatasary – 3 years later Souness would sign Saunders once again to play for his Benfica side. Souness also had an unhappy 5 month spell at Torino before joining Benfica after being refused to sign the players he wanted (more than likely British players).
Portugal’s capital Lisbon could not be further from Pembridge’s hometown (as well as my own hometown) Merthyr Tydfil. Merthyr Tydfil is a place still financially and socially crippled by the decline of local industry and the closure of the coal mines by Thatcher, whilst Lisbon is a coastal, thriving, tourist-friendly European capital city with sunshine blazing down on it.
Pembridge’s first port of call in his professional career would be at Luton Town, having been spotted by Luton’s renowned South Wales scout, Cyril Beach, who had also unearthed talents such as John Hartson and Ceri Hughes for the club. After 3 seasons at the club and impressing many, Derby County came into to buy the young Welsh midfielder in a deal worth just over £1m – a considerable sum for a young midfielder in 1992, although Pembridge by this time had made his debut for the Welsh national team against Brazil in 1991. The money came from ‘Mr. Derby County’ Lionel Pickering who became the majority shareholder in 1991 after pumping £13million pound of his self-made millions into the club. Pembridge was joined by the likes of Craig Short and Paul Kitson at the club, to help restore Derby County back to the top flight of English football. Derby and Pembridge were left disappointed in both 1992 and 1994 as Derby first failed in the 1992 Play-off semi-final only to fail once again in the Play-off final two years later against Leicester City. However, the appointment of Jim Smith as manager (with Steve McLaren as his number 2) and the signing of Igor Stimac inspired Derby to a second place finish in Division One and promotion to the Premier League in the 1995/96 season. However, at the start of this campaign, Smith was met by several players wanting to leave the club, including Pembridge. Smith duly sold Pembridge to Sheffield Wednesday for £900k, giving Pembridge a crack at playing Premier League football a season earlier than if he had remained at Derby.
By now, Pembridge had established himself as a more than competent left sided player in the First Division and was looking at making a name for himself in his first season in the Premier League. Pembridge appeared pressured by the price tag (still quite high for the time, especially for a player from the second tier) on arriving at the club, but he soon settled and won the respect of the fans for his industrious displays down the left flank. Despite regular injury setbacks in his 3 year duration at the club, Pembridge managed over 100 appearances (93 in the Premier League) for the club, scoring 13 goals. Pembridge’s last season in Sheffield was particularly disappointing with Wednesday finishing the 1997/98 season in 16th place.
Over 1000 miles away from Sheffield, Graeme Souness was plotting how to enhance an ailing Benfica team that had faltered during the early stages of 1997/98 season with part of his mind thinking of a dynamic Welsh midfielder who had just finished the season at the ‘Steel City.’
After successful managerial spells at Rangers and Galatasary, and not so successful spells at Liverpool, Southampton and Torino, Graeme Souness became manager of Benfica in November 1997 – an appointment made by ambitious new Club President Vale e Azevedo, who had vowed to take Benfica back to the glory days of the 1950-60s; he was even more determined to succeed after the club had entered it’s wilderness years during the1990s. The club, who had won the national league more than any other club, had gone four years without winning the Portuguese League.
Souness arrived at the club with the Portuguese giants languishing in mid-table. Souness steeled the club and got them shifting up the league table and heading towards a Champions League spot. Souness inherited a good team with plenty of talent: Nuno Gomes, Joao Pinto, Michel Preud’homme and Carlos Gamarra, as well as fellow Brit (and now face of Sky’s Revista de La Liga) Scott Minto. Souness decided to improve the team by sticking to what he knew and imported in a number of British players. Gary Charles, Steve Harkness (who bizarrely opted to have just ‘Steve’ on the back of his shirt) and Michael Thomas all joined over Souness’ time at the club. These may have not exactly been the mercurial talents that the chairman might have been thinking of – in fact, one of the President’s manifesto promises was to create a team of flair with a predominant Portuguese presence. Michael Thomas may have scored that famous title winning goal for Arsenal at Anfield, but he was certainly no Rui Costa or Eusebio. Souness was derided by the Portuguese press and the fans of Benfica for his ignorance towards Portuguese football, as he opted not to scout rival teams or even scour the country for Portuguese talent, opting to rely on his British imports. He was also disliked for his ‘un-Portuguese’ style of football as he played what the fans saw as ‘British style’ long ball tactics.
Souness’ tendencies towards pragmatic British players rather than the flair of the Portuguese nationals can perhaps best be summed up by his signing of Mark Pembridge in August 1998. Souness had decided to opt for Pembridge and Thomas in midfield ahead of a talented Brazilian teenager who had been impressing on the training field. It was clear to many in the know that this Brazilian teenager would go onto be particularly special player for the club in the future. After impressing on loan at FC Alverca with 13 goals in 32 games from an attacking midfield role, he was close to signing a contract. However, Souness decided that the player would not develop any further and would not fit his team. The young Brazilian was Deco and he would go onto to inspire Benfica’s biggest rivals Porto to win a number of Portuguese league titles, a UEFA Cup and Champions League trophy under Jose Mourinho, as well as trophy-clad stints at Barcelona and Chelsea. Deco would also become a Portuguese national and represent his adopted homeland on 75 occasions. Souness saw Pembridge as more important to the team than one of Portugal’s hottest talents and someone who would go on to become one of their best ‘homegrown’ players in the last 15 years. Souness has never been forgiven by the Benfica faithful for handing their biggest rivals such a devastating weapon.
Despite the circus that was beginning to surround Souness, Pembridge was rather unfazed by the whole experience and focused on his performances on the pitch. The Portuguese public were not enamoured by the Welshman at first, largely because of his unspectacular style of play (they could have had Deco after all) but unlike some of the other British players playing for the club, Pembridge actually got some praise for his role in midfield. Pembridge only featured in 19 league games for the Portuguese giants scoring 1 goal, but he did get to make his only ever appearances in the Champions League for the club. Pembridge played in almost every minute of Benfica’s 6 group stage games taking on FC Kaiserslautern, HJK Helsinki (featuring a young Shefki Kuqi) and PSV Eindhoven; Benfica failed to get beyond the group stage despite beating PSV and Kaiserslautern at the Estadio da Luz. Pembridge had done fairly well at the club, especially compared to his midfield partner Michael Thomas who was to be regularly abused by the Benfica fans as was Souness, who was eventually ousted in 1999 after a 3-0 loss to Boavista, where the Estadio da Luz was emblazoned with white handkerchiefs from the fans calling for Souness’ head. Souness would arrive at the training ground the next day only to be locked out by the President who had brought him in.
Many have mocked Souness’ stint in charge of Benfica because of his non-glitzy signings, such as Pembridge, for a club steeped in a history of fantasy football; however, it should be noted that signings such as Pembridge on a free transfer may have just been a necessity for Souness as it was largely reported that Benfica were completely skint during his tenure, hence why they were languishing in mid table when he arrived at the club. The fact that they even appointed Souness, a man out of work following a miserable 5 month spell at Torino and inevitable sacking, might even suggest a club in desperate financial circumstances. Souness even claimed towards the end of his managerial reign that he was the best manager Benfica had had in years citing the difficult circumstances he worked under and the fact that he had been their longest serving manager in seven years.
Jupp Heynckes was appointed as Souness’ successor and it soon appeared that Heynckes was not interested in the Steve Harkness’ of the world. Pembridge also appeared to be on the way out at Benfica and he seemed to welcome a move back to the Premier League having not really settled in Portugal, with Gordon Strachan’s Coventry City sniffing around as well as Everton. Eventually Pembridge would be rescued by Everton for £800k. Pembridge’s tone was one of relief on joining the club as he noted that the British players were treated as outcasts throughout the summer months at Benfica:
“When we first got back to pre-season training the president made the British players train on our own. He pays us our wages and we have to do what he says. It is not an ideal situation but it was made easier as there were five of us.”
By now Pembridge had established as a senior international, having gathered 20 caps since his Welsh debut in 1991. Although never a guaranteed first choice selection for the national team, Pembridge had featured in most squads since his successful seasons at Derby County and the ones he did miss were largely due to his injury problems, particularly at Sheffield Wednesday. Pembridge’s return to the Premier League would lead to more caps for the Welshman and many more starting spots.
Whilst many clubs took their time to come around to Pembridge’s tenacious style of wing play, Pembridge’s style was perfectly suited for Everton and admired by the Goodison Park faithful, a crowd which has always liked a ‘workhorse’ (look at the respect for the fairly average Denis Stracqualursi at the moment). Pembridge was a hit at the Merseyside club, particularly in his first two seasons, but although still delivering fine, lung busting performances for the club, injuries once again caught up with Pembridge and started to hamper his performances.
Whilst at Everton, Pembridge participated in one of the greatest nights of my football supporting life, as a Mark Hughes inspired Wales beat the mighty Italians 2-1 (Bellamy’s winning goal still ranks as one of my favourite football moments ever) in the Millennium Stadium in front of a 70,000 strong ‘football’ crowd, in which a 14-year old me was enveloped. The majesty of Pirlo could not contend with the sheer dogged nature of the relentless Pembridge-Savage midfield duo, who even bullied the similarly resolute Luigi Di Biagio and Massimo Ambrosini. I shall always love Pembridge just for being on the pitch that night!
Despite Pembridge’s injuries, Everton looked to want to hold onto him, but on the final day of the 2003 transfer window, Pembridge was on his way to London to sign for Fulham for £750k. Fulham were now managed by future Lost Boyo, Chris Coleman, who also signed experienced Welsh goalkeeper Mark Crossley as backup to the legendary Edwin Van der Sar. Similar to his time at Everton, Pembridge first two seasons at the club were excellent as he featured and started in the majority of the club’s Premier League fixtures.
On the 12th November 2004, John Toshack was appointed manager of the Wales national team with a vision to build for the future. On the very same day Mark Pembridge retired from international football, despite being in the middle of a successful season with Fulham. Pembridge followed the likes of Gary Speed, Andy Johnson and Andy Melville in retiring for their country. As well as his ageing years (in football years) Pembridge’s retirement may have spawned from the sheer disappointment of featuring in Wales’ Euro 2004 qualifying play-off defeat to Russia , but Pembridge claimed retirement was a result of the promising young crop of Welsh players coming through the ranks and to give them their chance:
“Since making my debut for Wales in 1991 it has been both an honour and a privilege to represent my country at the highest level. However, at this stage of my career I feel it is now time to step aside and give younger players the privileged opportunity to play for the Welsh national team.“
Pembridge’s final years at Fulham were haunted by injuries and eventually after Chris Coleman was sacked, new manager, Lawrie Sanchez, released him from the club. Pembridge never played another professional game, but Fulham clearly had a lot of respect for the Merthyr boy, as he now maintains a role as a coach at the club’s academy.
Despite playing for 3 Premier League clubs regularly, one European giant and garnering 54 caps for his country, Pembridge is still a fairly overlooked player. This is one of the reasons I have always liked him: an uncompromising player who went about his business with little fuss and played just for the love of the game. Pembridge also has to be applauded for having the bravery to attempt it abroad – the Merthyr Valley is renowned for being a bit of a bubble that no-one escapes, so perhaps even leaving as a youngster to play for Luton should be applauded! Merthyr boy done good!