Blue-eyed boys - Paul Peschisolido

Paul Peschisolido
Paul Peschisolido.

The tempo was unbelievable, and the aggression of the tackles. Anything below the waist was alright. I remember the passion from the supporters. I’d never seen anything like it, I really hadn’t.

Paul Peschisolido

Next up in our series of 'blue-eyed boys', Sean Cole catches up with former Blues forward and ex-Burton Albion manager Paul Peschisolido to look back on the Canadian’s career...

Paul Peschisolido knew he couldn’t afford to spurn his second chance at playing in Europe. It had taken his dad long enough to forgive him for failing to make the most of the first. As a 16-year-old, he had gone on trial with Juventus but suffered from homesickness and went back to Canada early. As a source of regret, it spurred him on. He had a point to prove.

“My dad was so devastated that I’d come back and sort of bottled it because he was a Juve fan,” says Peschisolido. “He literally didn’t speak to me for a year, so I was thinking, ‘Shoot, I’ve really got to show him.’ Then the opportunity came to go to Birmingham and I thought, ‘I’m going for it this time.’”

Peschisolido was playing well for the Toronto Blizzards when Tony Taylor got in touch. Since being sacked by the Canadian national team, Taylor had started coaching in the Birmingham City youth system under Terry Cooper. Blues were in need of a striker and he recommended Peschisolido. A trial was arranged, and it proved an eventful introduction to English football.

“I flew over, got off the plane, Tony Taylor picked me up from the airport and drove me straight to Cheltenham to play in a reserve game. After about five minutes I took the ball, played a one-two with Mark Cooper, who was Terry Cooper’s son, and scored a goal. Then 10 minutes later I ended up pulling my hamstring, which was probably to do with the six-hour flight and going straight to a match.”

Fortunately, the manager had seen enough in that short cameo to know he had a talent on his hands. Peschisolido was a sharp and instinctive striker. Cooper thought he had a future at the Club and was prepared to wait for him to return to fitness. Peschisolido trained for a month or two and scored again in his next game for the reserves. He was offered a contract and has stayed here ever since.

From the style of football to the dressing room antics that accompanied it, moving to England was something of a culture shock. Although he’d watched a few Premier League games on TV, Peschisolido was struck by the pace and passion of what he encountered. Off the pitch, the atmosphere took some adjusting to as well, but he felt immediately at home.

“The tempo was unbelievable, and the aggression of the tackles. Anything below the waist was alright. I remember the passion from the supporters. I’d never seen anything like it, I really hadn’t. It was an eye-opener for me. It was amazing. It was 100 miles an hour. The sense of humour was something I always loved. It was very self-deprecating. Everyone used to make fun of themselves and they sure as heck used to make fun of me and everyone else. As long as you could deal with that then you’d fit in,” says Peschisolido.

“There were plenty of players who came over and just couldn’t deal with that banter. They’d last about two minutes, but I loved it. I thought it was brilliant. You’ve got to remember that at the time Blues were really struggling. We used to train at a local park that was covered in dog mess and everybody had different training kit. It was a bit of a shambles, but it was great.”

In those days, the lower reaches of Division One could be an unforgiving place and Blues were gearing up for a relegation battle. Peschisolido rose to the challenge and soon found himself in the First Team. He made his debut as a substitute away to Barnsley in November 1992. He scored his first goal on his third appearance, a 2-2 draw with Watford, and started regularly thereafter.

Peschisolido grabbed seven goals in 16 appearances, helping to fire Blues away from trouble. He got five of them in March, the same month that David Sullivan came in as the Club’s new owner. A 23-year-old Karren Brady also arrived as Managing Director. She and Peschisolido started a relationship together, which was initially kept secret for fear of the consequences.

“I think a lot was made out of it, more than it really was,” he recalls. “I was probably a bit scared at the beginning, thinking ‘Could this hinder things? Is it going to cause a problem for her? Is it going to cause a problem for me?’ But I’ll be honest with you, everybody just kind of accepted it. She didn’t have much to do with the squad – it’s not like she picked the team or anything. It wasn’t that big of a deal.”

While Peschisolido kept up his goalscoring form, Blues again struggled at the start of the next season. In December, Terry Cooper was sacked, and Barry Fry came in as the Club’s new manager. A charismatic character, force of personality and repeated forays into the transfer market were his primary weapons. But as Blues slipped to relegation, Peschisolido was increasingly sidelined in favour of new signings. He left to join Stoke in the summer of 1994.

He was their top scorer in his first season, surrounded by familiar faces like Graham Potter, Simon Sturridge, Ian Clarkson and Nigel Gleghorn. After two years he moved on to West Bromwich Albion, via a brief spell back at Birmingham, and scored nine minutes into his league debut for the Baggies. The Hawthorns outfit were challenging towards the top of the second tier when a £1.1 million offer for him came in from an ambitious Fulham.

“I pulled up at the Dorchester for my meeting with Kevin Keegan, so they weren’t doing things by half, and he explained to me what was going on. That it was a four-year plan to get to the Premier League and there were so many changes that were going to happen at the club. I couldn’t turn it down and financially it was incredible as well,” says Peschisolido.

“It was exciting. Mohamed Al-Fayed would have Michael Jackson come to the games and bring him into the changing rooms. Hugh Grant was an avid supporter, so we used to see him after games, and Liz Hurley was there too. We were meeting all these superstars and mixing with the Hollywood A-list. We all had a staff Harrods discount card. We’d go there, and he’d look after us. It was good fun. It was the first time you really felt like a celebrity being a footballer.”

The owner’s dream of competing at the top level was achieved with two promotions in four seasons but Peschisolido fell by the wayside after a promising start. He was let go by Fulham once they made it there, and the same happened at the end of his career with Derby. Although the Canadian international spent so long pushing to reach the Premier League, he never made a single appearance in the competition.

“I look back at it now, and I had a great career, but that would be the one thing I missed out on. I got promoted to the Premier League with Fulham and moved on. I did it at Derby and I was sacrificed for it. I am disappointed that that didn’t happen, but what can you do? That’s the way things go, and I can’t complain too much because there are plenty of people who’d be really pleased to have the career I had,” he says.

In later years, Peschisolido was increasingly used as an impact player by Sheffield United and then Derby County. Although he was keen to play from the start, he regularly changed games when coming off the bench against tiring defences and earned a reputation as a super sub. The more he watched on from the sidelines, the more he began to contemplate how coaches and managers tried to influence proceedings. Then an unexpected opportunity arose.

“Jeff Kenna gave me a ring because he was managing out in Ireland with St Pat’s. We were neighbours and pals and we used to travel into Derby together. He asked me to come and spend some time out there and see how things were done. Obviously, we were flying over, which wasn’t ideal, so I thought if a managerial job came up back in England that I’d like to jump at the chance.”

After serving as Kenna’s assistant for four months he heard of an opportunity at Burton Albion, who had just been promoted into the Football League for the first time. “I just rang Ben Robinson, the chairman, out of the blue to see if he’d sit down and have a coffee with me. It was a bit bold, but nothing ventured nothing gained.”

Peschisolido’s proactive approach worked and he was given the job in May 2009. He helped to establish Burton in League Two while playing some bold, attacking football that won the club plenty of plaudits. They scored a lot of goals but conceded a lot too. Unfortunately, in his third season, they started to come unstuck and he was sacked after a 14-game winless run. Peschisolido was an idealist, unwilling to change his ways.

“I should have listened to Gary Rowett,” he laughs. “Gary was my assistant and I had this great idea. I thought that it was going to be very difficult to achieve any success at Burton because it was a small club and the wage bill wasn’t huge. I thought the only way we were going to make a name for ourselves was if we played a really attractive brand of football. I thought I was Pep Guardiola.

“But when we hit this bad spell where we couldn’t win, Gary would say to me, ‘Pesch, you’re going to have to put your beliefs to one side. Just go a little bit more direct and play balls into the channels. Let’s just get out of this rut.’ He was right, but I remember a manager saying to me that if you’re going to go down, make sure you do it on your own terms. If you’re going to take the blame for something, at least make it something you believe in.”

Although Peschisolido enjoyed the experience of management, it’s not something he’s looking to return to at the moment. It’s incredibly pressurised and time-consuming work. Right now, he’s enjoying acting as a presenter and co-commentator for a digital sports channel, covering games in France, Italy and Spain amongst other places. “I love it,” he says. “You get to watch great football games and just talk nonsense about them.”

GALLERY: Images from Paul Peschisolido's days at Blues.