For a man who stands 6’5 tall and is used to performing to 15,000 rowdy wrestling fans every week, it’s surprising to see someone taken aback by the sight of just an empty Lancashire football ground. But for Wade Barrett, lifelong Preston North End fan and current American wrestling superstar for the million dollar empire that is World Wrestling Entertainment (or WWE to everyone else), this represents a moment the Preston-born bruiser has only ever dreamed about.
“It’s surreal to be sitting here,” Barrett tells FourFourTwo on a clear but windy day in Deepdale’s Pavilion stand. “I’ve been here enough times as a fan, all through its development, but it’s been a dream to be shown around the ground and meet all the players and pass on some advice to the lads.” Indeed, the nature of today's visit isn’t all pleasure for Barrett: he’s actually in the UK promoting WWE’s biggest event of the year, Wrestlemania 27. Luckily for him, he’s being granted the chance to mix business with his love for all things North End, something he’s had no say in since he was a young boy.
“My Dad got into supporting Preston when I was just five or six years old, and I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I was brought up as a North End fan since I was five years old and I’ve carried that on. My first game was against Mansfield and I've seen all the highs and lows – even though I’m in the US, I’m still North End through and through.
"A lot of the time It’s difficult to keep up with the team 'cos I’m on the road a lot and I can’t watch the games. Only the Premier League is shown on TV and you’d never see a North End match on TV. My day off is usually a Wednesday but all I can really see then is maybe a Champions League game. But I make sure I know the Preston result on a Saturday and am always up to date on new signings and any events with the club.”
It’s clear that despite becoming one of WWE’s brightest young stars in the last year his heart is still very much with North End. He is ear to ear with a big Lancashire grin when he speaks of his favourite memories of the boys in white. “Two games really stand out for me. I remember watching Preston beat Cardiff City away 4-0 in 2000. I was actually living in Cardiff at the time. I was sat with my Dad in the Preston end, and when the fourth goal went in I could see my friends in the opposite end – it was an amazing moment.
"I also remember watching them in a cup match against Everton, in the same year. I think it was the fourth or fifth round and we were in the third tier of the Football League at the time. We ended up losing but I was so proud of how we did against a Premier League team. We played Arsenal in that era too and took a 2-0 lead live on TV. I remember the mascot talking a beating after the second goal – he got mauled. But we ended up losing 4-2.”
Looking at the current Preston side, it’s looking more and more likely that the side will be playing League One football next season for the first time in 10 years, after a disastrous run under Darren Ferguson that has left his replacement, Phil Brown, with an uphill task of saving the Lillywhites.
“It’s been a terrible year for us," agrees Barrett. "In fact, it’s been a downward spiral for the last couple of seasons. I think it’s inevitable, though, because Preston have been on a huge run of success in the last decade – though we’ve never quite made it to the Premier League. But it’s now time for a run of bad luck. It’s not nice to see and I’m disappointed to see us at the bottom of the league but I know we will recover next season. I’ve met Phil Brown: he’s a bit of a lad and I think he’ll do a good job here. He knows the area and did a great job with Hull.”
Having first made its nam�e in this country in the early 1990s with the likes of Hulk Hogan and Manchester’s own ‘British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith, the WWE is now a multimillion dollar global empire with the longest running TV show in the States and continuous coverage in this county on Sky Sports. But they are still to crown an English heavyweight champion. After a stellar first year with the company signs are good that Barrett could well be the first. With his bellowing northern tone and charismatic in-ring presence, Barrett has all the tools needed to be a success across the shore, something that can’t be said for the beautiful game in the States right now, despite how far it’s come since the David Beckham extravaganza rolled into town.
“I don’t know anybody who actually watches the MLS and I work in a environment full of sports fans,” says Barrett, dismissively. “One of the commentators for WWE, Todd Grisham, works on some MLS stuff and is into it to a certain extent, but the majority of the guys are not into it at all. The Americans get into it once every four years for the World Cup and then it dies down again.
"I can’t see it taking off too much in the future either. There was actually a footballer called Wade Barrett in MLS, but he’s retired now. When I first started with WWE I was googling my name and this bloke from Houston Dynamo kept popping up and I was quite disappointed. Now I’ve overtaken him and it’s just me that comes up.”
How about the Premier League, then? The company boasts a small select group of British stars – are they into their footie? “We had an American guy called MVP who was a big Manchester United fan," says Barrett, "but he’s left the company. There’s Sheamus, who's from Ireland and supports Liverpool. Drew McIntyre supports Glasgow Rangers. Mason Ryan, he's one of the new guys, he's a Liverpool fan. And, of course, William Regal, who claims to be a Blackpool fan – but he's only really started supporting them since they got in the Premier League. So I hope they get relegated again, obviously. I’ve been hoping for a programme with him at some point, and maybe we could both wear our shirts to the ring!”
While Wade’s full of excitement at the thought of a Preston-Blackpool clash in the squared circle, the thought of competing in this year’s Wrestlemania represents something much bigger and a fulfillment of a lifetime goal for England’s biggest WWE superstar. “It’s the pinnacle of our profession, like our FA Cup Final or the SuperBowl. It’s something I’ve watched every year since the very first one in the early '80s, and now we are on the 27th and it’s going to be huge for me.”
Putting loyalties to the test, then, what would Wade prefer: a WWE Championship reign or Preston to pull off what’s looking like the impossible and avoid relegation to League One this season? “I think I’d have to say Preston staying up, if I’m honest. But positively, I think both can happen.”
Interview: Ash Rose. Catch Wade in action on the WWE Wrestlemania Revenge Tour this April.