Heath leads Aztex on their longest trip yet

Facing Accrington in a fund-raising game is no problem for the former Everton striker and his Texan side, who can face three-day journeys for away matches. He talks to Phil Shaw
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The Independent Football

Around 5,000 miles, not to mention a chasm in history, separates Accrington Stanley and Austin Aztex. To the relief of the American club's coach, Adrian Heath, tonight's journey up to Lancashire from their Staffordshire base is almost like nipping out to the shopping mall in Texas.

From their Stoke-on-Trent hotel to the Crown Ground, where the clubs meet in the season's most improbable fixture in aid of the Save Our Stanley fund, is 68 miles. For Heath, 48, the former Everton player whose managerial posts included Burnley before he took charge of the new Austin club last year, the middle leg of a three-match English tour is a welcome respite from their usual "road" trips.

Their derby in the United Soccer League is against Miami Blues, 1,350 miles away. Every away game is a three-day adventure; one to get there, one for the game, another to get back. They visit Canada and the Pacific north-west. And then there's the Puerto Rico Islanders. "When we played them, we were supposed to go from Austin to Dallas, then on to Puerto Rico," recalls Heath. "The flight from Dallas was cancelled, so we piled into cars and raced down to Houston to get a plane to Newark, New Jersey to fly from there. Bad weather meant that was cancelled too, so we flew to Philadelphia. After four hours on the tarmac, we went to Newark, then raced across New York to JFK, only to miss the connection. When we reached Puerto Rico – three hours before kick-off – we'd been travelling 26 hours." How did they get on? "Lost 4-1," says Heath, finally able to laugh at the episode.

The Aztex have been on another journey, trying to "grow" football in a city which has never had a major professional sports franchise and a state where gridiron is next to godliness (the University of Texas drew 102,000 to their last game). Affiliated to Stoke City and co-owned by Phil Rawlins, a Stoke director with business interests in Austin, they finished second bottom in the USL in their inaugural campaign, playing to an average crowd of 3,200, though for Heath the downward spiral was also "a huge learning curve". "We've got lads who knew only college soccer, which is a three-month season. It's been like three seasons in one for them and they became very tired. We sent one player to the doctor's because we thought he was ill. It was just fatigue. We need more experience next year."

There have been stars in red and white stripes, however. Sullivan Silva, a Brazilian winger discovered at Oklahoma Baptist University, has "tricks coming out of his ears" according to Heath; Eddie Johnson, a Merseysider who made Manchester United's first team once in 2003, has revitalised his career and finished top scorer; and Miguel Gallardo, the Mexican goalkeeper, was voted Player of the Year by "Chantico's Army", a partisan fan group.

Yordany Alvarez, a midfielder who defected from the Cuba squad after an Olympic qualifier in Florida, is absent because the Cubans hold his passport. However, the Aztex promise an exotic line-up, featuring Jamaicans, Haitians, Senegalese and even the odd American, for a match the hosts hope will push them closer to the £308,000 needed to pay off tax debts.

"Only a couple of the boys have ever even been to Europe, but I've explained what a famous old club Accrington are," Heath says. "It'll be good experience, like our other games against Stoke and Sheffield Wednesday. We're also going to the weekend matches at Stoke and Wigan, which should give them an idea of the intensity of English football."