by JAKE NUTTING
The Rowdies wrapped up their preseason trip to England on Tuesday with an encouraging 1-1 draw with a Stoke City XI. The Unused Substitutes had a chance to catch up with the lone Englishman on the roster, Tamika Mkandawire, right after the team finished up with its final training session of the trip before they head home.
So I’ll start by asking what your impressions of training at St. George’s Park have been like. Is this your first time experiencing it or have you been here before?
This is my first time here. It’s an incredible facility, some really huge grounds. I was aware of it obviously when I was in England. I think it was finished before I left for Tampa Bay but I’d never been here. So it’s great to see it firsthand. It’s an incredible facility, all based on football. You’ve got everything under one roof — rehabilitation center if you have injuries, gym, obviously a hotel, swimming pool. Everything you could probably want for a professional team. So it’s a great base and it’s great to have been able to train here and experience it.
So fans in Tampa Bay didn’t have a chance to see you play in the earlier preseason games over here. How do you fell about your performance in your first action of the year?
I feel good. For me, at this stage it was about getting just the minutes under my belt. I got 90 minutes against Forest, 45 against Notts County, and then another 70 minutes yesterday. Physically I feel very good, feels like I’m up to speed with the rest of the guys. I feel positive about the direction that we’re going.
It sounds like Stoke controlled the game for stretches and pressured you guys, but you managed to hold your own and keep them scoreless until stoppage time. What were your impressions of the match?
It was a good test for us. I think it was the Stoke U-21s and they had a couple of first team guys playing, Charlie Adam and Stephen Ireland. They’re very experienced players that have played at the top level. It’s always good to test yourself against the best players and we held our own. I thought we played some great football. Obviously at times they held on to the ball for a little bit, but we didn’t crumble. We stuck together and everybody knows their jobs right now. I thought we played very well. The goal was very good football, some one-touch passing, some one-twos and a great finish by Darwin. I think things are looking promising. To play against a Premier League team is always going to be a test and I’m really proud of the boys and how we’ve dealt with everything on this tour.
You partnered up with the latest signing Neil Collins yesterday. How do you feel you guys played together?
I thought we did well. It was our first game and he was very new to the squad, so it’s always going to be a little bit difficult to go straight into a game with someone you’ve never played with before. But everything went well. There was good communication. He’s obviously a very good player, he’s got a very good pedigree. Things are looking good. I thought he did very well for his first game and hopefully long may it continue.
You were the iron man last year, playing every available minute. Having said that, do you still feel pressure to earn your spot this preseason?
Yeah, every year it starts from scratch. There’s no guarantees in an any sport. I still have the desire and the appetite for the game. I still want to play every single game, if possible. I want to be available for selection for every game. Every preseason starts from scratch. Everybody’s still fighting for their place in the starting XI no matter who you are, what position, or what you did last season. Last season is forgotten. It’s about concentrating on the now and the future. If you rest on your laurels, you might find yourself out of the starting team. The squad coach has put together, we really do have strength and depth at all positions. So you have to be performing day in and day out in training. And you really have to be sharp to ensure you start that first game on April 2.
So you’re the only Englishman on the squad this year. Have you enjoyed your time back over there this year? Do you usually go back in the offseason?
We didn’t come back this offseason, so it was good to come back and reacquaint myself with the weather [laughs]. It kinda reminded me why I left. But it’s good to come back and see a few faces that I haven’t seen for a long time from the football world. Catch up with them, see a couple of my friends and family.
It’s good to be back and remind myself what it’s all about. I’m actually very grateful to be in Tampa Bay and playing for the Rowdies, to be honest. Sometimes you think you made the wrong decision, leaving your home country to play, but I know it’s made me even more grateful. Coming here and seeing the level of play, and seeing how in we’ve come a long way since I first joined. It just makes me grateful for what I have in Tampa Bay and the Rowdies. As great as English football is, right now I think there’s no better place for me to be than Tampa Bay.
Have you enjoyed listening to horrible pronunciations and accents from your American teammates? Stu Campbell gave me some guff for my pronunciation the other day.
[Laughs} Oh yeah, there’s been a few dodgy accents coming out. The worst is Junior Burgos, by far. He’s terrible! But it’s been quite funny. A couple of them are not bad. Eric Avila’s pretty good actually, not a bad accent. Matt Pickens, but obviously he’s been here before playing a little bit. But yeah, Junior is terrible. Absolutely shocking [laughs].