Chris Birchall interview: Vale’s Soca Warrior takes it back to basics
Following his exploits in Major League Soccer and an unforgettable World Cup in an eight-year international career with Trinidad & Tobago, Port Vale midfielder Chris Birchall has a vast appreciation of different cultures, but his trusted team initiation song choice shows no sign of that!
The Stafford-born Vale supporter returned to his boyhood club in 2013 after four years spent in America with Los Angeles Galaxy and Columbus Crew. The perks of California life with the Galaxy included beach-house living, friendships with singer Robbie Williams and ex-England captain and teammate David Beckham, as well as on-field glory. Add in his time with the Trinidad & Tobago national team and it is easy to understand the different worlds he has discovered away from home.
The Chris Birchall who re-joined Vale last January was in many ways much changed from the one that left the Burslem club for Coventry City in August 2006. He had returned a married father-of-one and with the kind of knowledge that only first-hand life experience brings, after testing himself a long way from his native surroundings.
Despite all that new perspective and understanding, sometimes you just have to keep it simple and that is most definitely the way Chris prefers when it comes to his favoured initiation track!
“Twice I’ve had to sing, both under Micky Adams. When a new signing joins they have to sing a song on an away trip and I sang ‘Boom Boom Boom’ twice, by The Outhere Brothers.”
As he alluded to, Chris has actually been signed three times in his career by clubs managed by his current gaffer Micky Adams. The former Leicester City boss took him to Coventry, Vale and also Brighton in January 2009. One of Adams’ summer signings has had a real impact in defence, helping the team to its present berth of 9th in League One, six points off the play-offs.
The player in question has made 33 appearances and been very impressive since he came in at left-back. He also received an emotional ovation from the Vale fans in the 1-0 home win over Oldham last month following the death of his mother. The ex-Watford defender has been a big hit with supporters and he was also the first one Chris thought of when it came to his teammates’ singing displays.
“Carl Dickinson when he signed here at Port Vale, I can remember that. I’d say he was the best, Dicko.”
In the previous two seasons, former Vale players Marc Richards and Ashley Vincent have featured on here and given an insight into the tracks that are played in the changing room before a game. Those two have since moved on from the club and the man who now gets to be team DJ is someone who was undoubtedly important in getting Sheffield Wednesday promoted to the Championship in 2011/12.
Chris gives him the seal of approval but there are a couple of others who don’t quite pass the test!
“Chris Lines is a good one because his iPod is always on the matchday speakers. Bad ones are Adam Yates and Tom Pope – they’ve got shocking taste.”
Hip-hop and house are the favoured genres on the team playlist and the specific songs Lines puts together for his fellow players at the club can be heard here. Although he isn’t necessarily the one to dictate the sounds on the speakers, Chris (Birchall) is certainly musically-wired, even if there is one pretty interesting and daring choice in his list of favourite artists!
“Music’s always been played around everywhere that I am in my life. The certain genres are: definitely indie, bands like Kaiser Chiefs, (the) Killers, Parachute, and then different varieties like pop – One Direction!
“Old, 80s like Phil Collins, stuff like that, so all kinds of genres. I must have been about 11 or 12 (when I bought my first record) I think and it was a dance track by Lucid.”
Life started to change for Chris when back in 2005 he was approached by towering Wrexham centre-back Dennis Lawrence (now on Everton’s coaching staff) about his family background. Lawrence was at Vale Park with Wrexham for a League One game and he told Chris he had heard he had some Trinidadian heritage.
Chris’ mother was born in Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain and raised by her parents on the Caribbean island until her teenage years. Dennis Lawrence put Chris in touch with the relevant people and later that year he was hitting a stunning goal into the top corner to equalise in a World Cup play-off home leg with Bahrain.
His goal at Hasely Crawford Stadium secured a 1-1 draw and the Soca Warriors then went and won in the return fixture in Manama thanks to a header from that man Lawrence. Trinidad & Tobago had qualified for their first ever World Cup and Chris had become one of the national heroes despite having never visited until his first call-up.
At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Chris played every minute of the three group matches for Leo Beenhakker’s team. They opened with a 0-0 draw against Sweden in front of 62,959 in Dortmund and it could have been different if Cornell Glen’s strike hadn’t cannoned back off the crossbar.
Chris then had the surreal experience of playing against England on the biggest stage of all and it took until the 83rd minute in Nuremburg for the Three Lions to score through Peter Crouch. Many will point to Crouch pulling on the hair of Brent Sancho as he went up for the header! The game ended 2-0 as Steven Gerrard swept home another in the dying moments and a 2-0 loss to Paraguay followed in the final match.
As the national team’s first white player and someone who grew up far away from the country, Chris was naturally unsure at how he would be received at first. Although he was welcomed from the start, his industrious performances and no lack of quality ensured that there were many well-wishers when he announced his international retirement last December.
With the carnivals in Trinidad, music is always an integral part of such celebrations. The TnT Soca Boys recorded the ‘official’ World Cup song for the team but ‘Fighter’ by Maximus Dan is seen as much more of an anthem for the people and supporters. Chris, who scored four goals in his 43 caps, recalls the soundtrack to his days with the Soca Warriors.
“Well in Trinidad they’ve got a music genre called soca which is kind of like a mix between reggae and dance, so that was always on. We had a song made for us in the World Cup which is somewhere on YouTube I think.”
While with Coventry, Chris ventured north to play for Carlisle United and St. Mirren on loan. The Newcastle-under-Lyme native began his American adventure in 2009 and he started the MLS Cup final that year as LA Galaxy were beaten by Real Salt Lake on penalties.
Playing under one-time US national team coach Bruce Arena, he got to clinch the trophy two years later, coming on for Adam Cristman as the Galaxy secured a 1-0 win over Houston Dynamo at the Home Depot Center.
Ex-Everton loanee Landon Donovan got the goal and playing at the heart of the Galaxy defence was another past interviewee on here – A.J. DeLaGarza. Chris mentioned 26-year-old DeLaGarza, who has been capped by both the United States and Guam, when talking about who would play the team’s music in Los Angeles. He was also asked whether he or David Beckham, who he got to become friends with, would ever get control of the sound system.
“I would never, Beckham definitely would. People probably wouldn’t think this but he’s really into his hip-hop/rap, probably because of the people that he knows.
“A.J. DeLaGarza would definitely stay away from that because his taste was rubbish! I’d say Beckham the most would have his iPod on.”
Even while he was in LA, Chris said he would love the opportunity to one day return to Port Vale. There was to be one more club before he did just that – Columbus Crew. Joining the MLS side in 2012, he had to find accommodation and get his fitness up to speed…and also get married!
Chris had found it difficult being away from loved ones while in the US and his partner Lucy and young son Ashley had to keep returning to England as they were only allowed to stay for 90 days at a time due to visa regulations. Chris and Lucy tied the knot back home while he was signed to the Crew so he spent the majority of his trip to England in the gym and had to go steady on the wedding food!
He had experiences of a lifetime in the US including Robbie Williams contacting LA Galaxy to ask for his number after he saw him play against Barcelona in a friendly. Chris ended up playing football with the Take That singer and Vale fan near his California home and he assesses the best of his time in the States.
“Definitely the football and travelling to different states and flying to games – that was always good. “It was tiring at times but I got to see a lot of the country.
“It taught me that there’s a big, wide world out there and different cultures, especially in Trinidad as well and then America. Just different lifestyles and (learning) that I could live away from family and friends, which was hard.”
Rated as arguably the best player to come through the ranks at Vale in the past decade or so, Chris made his debut as a 17-year-old in September 2001 against top-flight Charlton Athletic in the League Cup. Over 11 years later, he returned home having initially offered to play for the club for free in light of their financial struggles.
His best season for goals so far was 2004/05 as he struck seven times and he has scored twice during this campaign including against former employers Coventry in a 3-2 victory. He might not be starting week in week out for the club but he remains very much a part of Micky Adams’ plans and the know-how he can pass on to his fellow players is undoubtedly of value.
Chris was one of the scorers as Vale thrashed Burton Albion 7-1 last April to move a step closer to promotion from League Two and he describes what he enjoys most about his team.
“Probably that I support the club, I’ve been associated with them since I was 8/9 years old so playing for my boyhood team is definitely my favourite thing about the club.”
The last question is always the trickiest but it is time for Chris to put together a team of his own. Placing himself in a 5-a-side line-up, he was asked to name the four of his career teammates he would have alongside him. Understandably, his counterparts from LA Galaxy took up the majority of the side but Vale supporters will enjoy his choice of goalkeeper.
The Barnsley-born stopper had to retire from the game in 2008 after the effects of an achilles injury suffered at Bristol City in December 2006 threatened his long-term well-being. He played 247 times for Vale and it is fair to say he has a pretty decent outfield selection in front of him in Chris’ team.
“I’m probably going to miss out some really good players! One keeper, who am I going with?
“I’m going to go with Mark Goodlad – when he was here he was brilliant. Omar Gonzalez, for America and LA Galaxy, just because he’s a really good defender.
“He’s young, he’s up-and-coming and he’s going to be a regular for the national team for a long time. Beckham – just really because of everything he’s done in his career and it was a privilege to play with him.
“I’m going to go with Robbie Keane, again at Galaxy, because of his whole career. Premiership goals and his goalscoring record all over, and especially because he was a good friend to me.”
Follow me on Twitter: @chris_brookes
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