Recently, having grown frustrated with the glass ceilings of England’s pyramid, former Premier League star Andy Preece made a surprising move into Welsh football. The one-time Crystal Palace striker took on a Director of Football role, with the ambitious Airbus UK outfit.
Prior to signing with Airbus, Preece had spent an eventful quarter-century in the English game.
In the early 90s, he netted one goal in every two games played for Stockport County, earning himself his move to Premiership side Palace.
Whilst at Selhurst Park, the target man was involved in one of the most infamous matches in English football history. He was an eyewitness to Eric Cantona’s kung fu kick attack on a Palace fan – a move that earned the Frenchman an eight-month ban from the game.
After leaving the Eagles, Preece returned to North West footballing circles, making his presence felt in spells at Blackpool, Bury and Carlisle. Indeed, it was during his five-year period at Bury that Preece gained his first coaching experience, as a player-manager.
After, eventually, dropping out of the Football League ranks, as a Carlisle United player, he went on to have successful managerial runs at, credible non-league outfits, Worcester City and Northwich Victoria.
The highspot of Preece’s time at the Northwich helm was a win over Charlton Athletic in the 2nd Round of the 2009-10 FA Cup. Sadly, that same season, despite finishing in a safe mid-table position, the Cheshire club were relegated, due to off-the-field concerns.
Tired of swimming against the tide of the club’s financial woes, Preece departed on January 16th of this year, to take charge at Airbus UK Broughton FC – a club founded, in the 1940s, as the works team of a local aerospace factory.
Fittingly nicknamed “The Wingmakers”, Airbus achieved top-flight status, for the first time in club history, in 2004. Since that promotion, the team has been inching it’s way up the Welsh Premier League. At the time of writing, the club stands as an established mid-table outfit, with ambitions of future European qualification.
In an exclusive, in-depth conversation with BPF’s Dave Wood, Preece discussed his first impressions of Welsh football, his thoughts on artificial pitches, the art of managing smaller clubs, losing traction in the English system and more.
Preece’s Director of Football job title is one of many parallels that can be drawn between the ambitious Airbus project and the meteoric rise of, their Welsh Premier League rivals, TNS. Now known as The New Saints, TNS originally made their name under the ownership of the Total Network Solutions technology firm. They have operated, noteworthily, under a continental management set-up which, combined with the corporate backing, has led the club from nowhere to it’s current dominant position in Welsh football.
Describing his new role, Preece said:
I’m in charge of all first team affairs, reserves, right the way through to the academy.
Looking at how we’re gonna move forward over the next few years, it’s my job to implement and get together a strategy for us to be challenging for Europe on a regular basis
Forming a coaching trifecta, Preece has brought in his trusted lieutenants; former Manchester City captain, Andy Morrison (Assistant Manager) and, former Welsh Premier League player and manager, Darren Ryan (Head Coach); with him from Northwich.
They bring different strengths to the table than what I’ve got. We’ve tried to get the best of everything. More on the coaching side, with Andy. He’ll do a lot of the coaching and he’ll help with the development of younger players and getting that development from lads who have, probably, been released from clubs. We’ll be trying to improve those and bring those through to the first team.
Darren, with his experience of working at Wolves…with the 12-16-year-olds there…he’ll bring that experience to the academy. He also has experience of the Welsh League as well, which we haven’t got.
We’ve all got different strengths and hopefully we’ll cover all of the bases and that’ll make us successful going forward.
Although Preece has his mind set on developing local youngsters, he admits that it can be a tricky balancing act, at any semi-professional club with a relatively restricted budget.
It’s very difficult. We can talk about developing young players but it’s very difficult to do it. There’s no doubt about it. We’ve got to try and find a method, being a part-time club. We know, from experience at Northwich, it’s not easy.
When you’re full-time, it’s a lot easier to develop players because you have more time with them. So, we’ll have to try and find an answer to that. We know that isn’t going to be easy but we’re going to try the best that we can. With the importance of the first team and getting results, sometimes you haven’t got the time to be patient and to give lads the time to develop.
One of the immediate-term challenges that Preece faces is taking over a club mid-way through a season, with previous head honcho, former Middlesbrough man, Craig Harrison having recently left for the coveted TNS job.
Normally when you take a club over they may probably be struggling and results might not be great and you have to find out the strengths and weaknesses as quickly as you can.
You can go in there and just change everthing straight away, when there may be some really good things going on. So, you just have to take your time, have a look at the bigger picture, talk to people who are there and make sure you don’t make changes for the sake of change.
And then, when you get to the end of the season you can what was working and what wasn’t working and then really put your own stamp on it.
Another challenge that the new man has encountered, in moving from the English system to the Welsh system, is developing specialist knowledge of the Principality’s game.
To be honest I hadn’t seen a lot of the Welsh Premier League. I wasn’t too aware of it or of the players. I’d spoken to Darren a lot, he let me know about the standard.
It wasn’t one of places I looked to bring players in, for Northwich, but having been involved in a few games now in the league, I can see there are some good players in it.
Preece spoke honestly about his first impressions of the standard of Welsh football.
Against Bala and against TNS, the pitches for both of those games weren’t the best. So that was very hard to judge. But with TNS, on their pitch, you could see that they were a full-time team. The way they moved the ball was pretty impressive. It is a good standard. They probably had four or five players that didn’t start that game, as well. So the standard is pretty decent, especially at the top of the league.
There is some good talent in the league.
TNS; a unique club that represent both the towns of Llansantffraid, Wales and Oswestry, England; play their games at Oswestry’s Park Hall Stadium. The playing surface, at the multi-purpose venue, is an artificial “Ligaturf” pitch, which has provoked much debate throughout Welsh football. Artificial pitches can be common in certain European leagues but are, largely, alien to British football.
Preece shared his thought on the surface at Park Hall and the talk of English Football League clubs, including Accrington Stanley, lobbying for the right to use non-grass pitches in the not-to-distant future.
As a player, I wouldn’t have been keen to play on that every week. Personally, I’m not in favour. I think football should be played on grass. I think it’s gives too big of an advantage to the team who has that surface and, although the surfaces have improved over the years, still lots of out lads came off [the pitch at Park Hall] with burns and cuts on their legs.
Saying that, I’d much prefer to play on the 3G (*third generation astroturf) at TNS than a couple of the pitches that we’ve played on recently, that have been of a very poor quality.
That’s the one thing that’s surprised me [about Welsh football]. For a league that looking to go forwards and make improvements…you have to have your UEFA Pro License to be a manager in league…If you’re going to improve the standard of football, and the standard of players going through for the Welsh national team, then I think that the improvement needs to go, a bit more, into the grounds. Then you’ll attract better quality players, you’ll get better quality football and, ultimately you’ll get better quality players pushing for the national team.
Airbus’s ground, affectionately known as the Airfield, has it’s own unique characteristics. The 2,000 capacity stadium sits next to an operational airport runway. The geography of the facility has necessitated the installation of high-tech retractable floodlights. Planes can be spotted flying overhead during games, offering a surreal, video-game-like quality to live broadcasts on Wales’s S4C TV station.
I haven’t really noticed too many planes flying overhead or anything like that. I don’t think you’re that aware of it really. When you come in, you’re aware of the factory but I don’t think you’re too aware of it, the airfield itself.
Preece has, in fact, been impressed with the infastructure at the club. I think we’ve got one of better grounds in the league, there. When you come in and you see our pitch and the stadium, and the improvements that are going to happen over the next 18 months, I just think you’ll be just coming in and thinking about a football stadium.
It’s got a massive future, the football club, and it’s going to be built on a solid foundation, with one of the best facilities in the Welsh Premier. So, it’s going in the right direction and I’ve not been too aware of any air traffic going on around me…not yet anyway!
The club’s hometown of Broughton; in Flintshire, Wales; lies only a few miles from the historical English city of Chester. It was only eight years ago that Airbus were reached the Welsh Premier League. Their formative years were spent in Chester district leagues and in North Wales’s regional divisions.
Preece is respectful of the team history and has been impressed by the community that exists around the club.
I know [the club has] been in the Welsh Premier for the last few years. It’s very young, really, in it’s history. A lot of work’s gone into building the club up from nothing to where it is now. It’s been done through a lot of hard work and a lot of volunteers. It’s a club that the people are proud of and can be proud of. Great strides have been made over a short period of time and it’s been done without throwing money at it, on a stable financial footing.
It’s all geared towards being successful, and so that the club can make more strides as we’re successful. As far as I’m concerned, the club has been brought forward in the right way. We don’t owe any money to anybody, and it’ll continue to work that way.
It’s a credit to those involved, over a number of years, there’s a lot of people that have given a lot of time for the football club. I just hope that I can bring them some success over the next few years, to give people a lot of pleasure in return for all of the work they’ve put in.
Over the course of it’s history, the club has experienced a number of name changes, which have kept it in line with the branding of the local factory. Originally called Vickers-Armstrong, the club and factory have also been known as De Havilands, Hawker-Siddeley, British Aerospace and BAE Systems.
Current parent company, Airbus UK is a £2m annual revenue organisation, which employs around 10,000 members of staff, across all departments. The headquarters are based close to the Welsh border, in Bristol.
Preece understands the importance of refelcting the ethos of the organisation, and the local community, on the field of play. It is vital that he identifies the correct recruits to add to a team known for being a solid, industrious group, with few superstars.
The club has got high-standards. It’s connected to a factory and to a big company. We represent that company when we play football. So, our discipline has to be right. We have to represent this company in the right way.
As far as players go, it’s much the same as any club. We want ambitious players. We want hungry players. We want players who want to be successful, who want to improve, and who are set for big challenges. It’ll be a massive challenge for Airbus to break into the top six, let alone the top four, in this league. It hasn’t happened yet. There’s a lot of massive strides that are going to have to be made, if we want to do it, and it’ll be tough.
So, we need the right sort of player, or the right sort of character, who looks at that as a challeng, feels that they can do it and wants to be part of something that hasn’t been done before. There’s a lot of things that we want to happen but it’ll take a lot of hard work and it won’t be easy.
Preece, who has been handed a three-year deal to spearhead the Airbus project, was enticed not only by the ambition of the club, not only be the challenge of taking a team into Europe, but also by the stability that Airbus were able to offer, in comparison to Northwich Victoria.
This stability should allow Preece to bring a long-term vision to life. He is relishing the opportunity and is aware of the steps that will need to be taken, in order to overcome the challenge that lies ahead.
Obviously, the first half-season will be a learning curve for us. We hope that it’ll be an advantage, that we’re not starting cold at the start of next season. We’ll know about all of the teams, we’ll know about all of the places that we’ve got to go to. What we’re going to need, what sort of pitches we’ll be going to. So, I think that’ll be an advantage to us.
We’ll be set up, we’ll know what we need to do. Budget-wise we’re not going to anywhere near the top five or six in this league, so it’ll be a challenge to break into that group. That will come down to good recruiting and good coaching and good organisation. So, it’ll be a long term plan. It may not be as simple as two or three years and then we’ll get into Europe but the foundation will be laid to do that over the next five, six, seven years and then to be there continually.
It’s a gradual process but, over the next three years, we’ll be looking to break into that top six and then on into that top four. If we’re doing that we’ll have been successful. It’s very hard to break hard to break into a top four that really hasn’t changed for a number of years. It’s very difficult to get in there, because of the standard, because they’ve got European money and because they’ve got good backing financially and there’s a couple of them that are full-time.
So, it’s a tough challenge but one that we’ll enjoy and one that we feel that we can do. It’ll take a lot of hard work, a bit of luck and it will take time as well.
The instability that, ultimately, triggered Preece’s departure from Northwich exacerbated when the team were forcibily relegated to the Unibond Northern Premier League.
Despite having their hands firmly tied by the club’s money problems, Preece and his coaching staff soldiered on for 18 months and did a “remarkable job”, in the words of Vics owner Jim Rushe.
Before crossing the border into the Wales, Preece was one of the few ethnic minority managers employed in the English system. Sadly, he had found himself gradually going backwards in his career, in spite of on-field results. A number of applications for higher-level jobs had proven futile, engendering a sense of disenfranchisement in the 44-year-old.
European aspirations and stability aside, the apparent restrictions on social mobility in English football could go some way further to explaining Preece’s unusual new choice of career direction.
I just felt that chances were limited, and it didn’t matter how well you did. I’d had really successful spells at Bury, Worcester and Northwich but I seemed to be going down, rather than up. It wasn’t down to results or winning games, just circumstances really. I wasn’t getting the opportunity any higher. You just get disillusioned.
I was pretty frustrated with the English game and the opportunities that weren’t forthcoming. People were beginning to question whether it was the colour of my skin.
I was just totally disillusioned with it, through the lack of opportunity and the possibility that it’s down to the colour of my skin. I just felt that it was time to move out of that. Hopefully, if I get Airbus into Europe, that’ll prove to people…and maybe then I’ll come back into the English system.
It’s just frustrating. You can’t help looking at the race thing. You don’t really want to do that, but I’ve done over 500 games now, as a manager, and won 200 and odd. That’s over a 40%strike-rate, regards wins. To have that kind of record and you’re not going up, you’re going down, it just doesn’t add up.
You don’t begrudge anybody else the opportunity but you just wonder what more you have to do. When you put your record up against some of these people that have been getting jobs recently and you look at it and think ‘Why would they get an opportunity before me?’ or ‘Why would I not get an interview here?’, sometimes you just can’t answer that.
The thing is…just get all of your badges. That’s my thing. Get all of your badges and make sure there’s no excuse. Otherwise they can just say ‘well we needed someone with the A-License or the Pro License’…or whatever…there’s always an excuse.
Thing is, if you’ve got all of the badges, you’ve got the experience, you’ve managed at a level higher, you’re experienced but you’re young; then what more can you do? My record’s far superior to some managers that have gotten Football League jobs, of late
Fair enough, who says they don’t deserve the opportunity ahead of me, but it’s frustrating when you’ve been hard-at-it and winning games and you can’t get a chance.
With fresh opportunity now presenting itself, at an enterprising club that is all set to take off, Preece openly offered the benefit of his experience, to anyone facing adversity in the modern world.
Just keep going. Tick all of the boxes. If you’ve got all of the boxes ticked, there’s not really anything else you can do, is there?
Just keep going and don’t give up. That’s my motto – ‘never give up’. It’s very easy to.
The BPF team would like to thank Andy Preece (Director of Football), Philip Bailey (General Secretary) and all at Airbus UK Broughton FC, for their co-operation on this project.
Readers can visit www.airbusfc.com, for more information on the club.
Fans wishing to follow the fortunes of Airbus, and all of their fellow Welsh Premier League clubs, can do so via S4C’s excellent, free online match archive, to be found here.