While Fire defender Cory Gibbs is ahead of schedule on his return from injury, next weekend's friendly with Aston Villa will unfortunately come too soon for him to play. However, he's still uniquely qualified on the team to provide insight on the Birmingham club, and on English soccer in general -- Gibbs spent the 2006-07 season in the Premier League with Charlton Athletic, and was also with the club the following year when they played in the Championship (England's second tier).
Although injuries prevented him from ever playing for the first team, he gained a great appreciation for the league, and his teammates. One of those teammates, Darren Bent, is now the centerpiece of Aston Villa's attack after signing from Sunderland in January 2011 for a club record transfer fee of £18million.
Gibbs gave his thoughts on Bent after a recent training session, and also discussed his time in England and the Premier League as a whole.
Sam Svoboda: Cory, what makes Darren Bent so dangerous?
Cory Gibbs: He's really dynamic. He's got great pace, which everybody knows about, but his quality of finishing is second to none. He's one of those guys that can give you 20+ goals a season. He's just a quality player... very athletic and dangerous, so he's going to be a key guy for us to watch.
SS: What advice do you have for your fellow Fire defenders who will have to mark him?
CG: It's one of those games, you know, we've dealt with that type of situation last year with Manchester United and the quality forwards they had. It's just about staying focused, staying tuned in. Football-wise, we're all professionals. It's just about staying focused for 90 minutes.
SS: Talk about Darren’s personality.
CG: Personally, [he's a] great kid. With a lot of players [some might say they're] good on the field but bad off the field, with how they carry themselves, but Darren is a great kid on and off the field. Very quiet, great attitude, always upbeat. And on the field he's so dangerous. Any coach would want him on their team.
SS: Were you able to follow Aston Villa's season this past year?
CG: I was. A lot of it had to do with just being unlucky. They were very unlucky in a lot of games. You know, I'm not there, it's hard for anybody to know the insides of what's really going on. I've been on teams with high quality, definitely good enough to be mid-to-top table, and we end up getting relegated. So it could be a mixture of a lot of things.
But in terms of football, they lost a lot of games where they were just unlucky, or they just could've pulled off a victory or come out with a point, and they ended up getting nothing... And injuries. I think that's another key. I think Darren was hurt for a good part [he missed the last three months of the season], and that's the last person you want out.
SS: What was it like to live in England?
CG: It was great. England is one of those places [where] you need money to live, so that part of it wasn't the best, but in terms of the lifestyle and everything like that it's just a great place to live. I was fortunate enough to live with a lot of the footballers who played for my team, for Tottenham and for West Ham, [since] we're all in that same area, so we had a good time there.
For me it was bittersweet, because I was hurt a good portion of the time. But I learned a lot, I learned an exponential amount of football knowledge, not just on the field but off the field, from the likes of Darren, Jimmy Hasselbaink, Marcus Bent. There were a lot of players of that quality that were around me year in and year out. I was fortunate enough to have that experience.
SS: What might American fans, watching from afar, not realize about the Premier League?
CG: When you're playing the game or if you're over there watching a game live, the speed of play is so much faster than anybody could ever expect... The tackles, the tackling is much harder and the refs let things go a lot more than in MLS. I think soft tackles here lead to red cards too easily.
SS: What are the differences between MLS and the Premier League?
CG: I think just the calibre is much higher. The intensity in trainings and games is next to none. The aggressiveness over there... you're fighting for your life and you're fighting for your position, where if you have a week of bad training, you're not going to see the field again. They have the power and financial ability to buy someone else and spend millions of pounds. MLS doesn't have those type of resources. It puts a lot more pressure on the players, the manager and the club, you know? So overall that just makes the level of play much higher.
SS: What would you tell young American players going to play in England?
CG: You've got to be ready for a transition. You go in with high expectations, and you have to be ready to work day in and day out. You can't take a day off. It's not one of those things where you can have a day's worth of bad training and be OK with it. If you do have a bad day, you have to pick it up the next day and play that much better... And also to stay level-headed when times aren't good. If you're not starting, just wait for your time to come, and when your time comes, take full advantage of it. Besides that, off the field you just have to do the right things.
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