Whatever the weather, no matter how treacherous the conditions surrounding Deepdale, George Baldock knows tomorrow’s journey to Preston North End will be positively mundane compared to one he undertook during a loan spell in Iceland at the beginning of his career.
“We had to get a boat to away games,” the Sheffield United defender remembers, “As the team I was with was based off the coast. One day, because they weren’t running, we ended up on a sort of inflatable dinghy which was pretty crazy in itself. But halfway across, the guy who was sailing told us all to be quiet because a whale was alongside us. What an amazing sight.”
Five years after experiencing the Úrvalsdeild karla, six months since arriving from MK Dons, Baldock is back on much more familiar territory as he discusses football, family and United’s push for promotion from the Championship only a season after winning League One. But, raising his voice above the hum of a passing lawnmower as groundstaff tend the pitch at Bramall Lane, he explains how joining ÍBV, based on a tiny archipelago nearly 70 miles from Reykjavík, helped make him the player he is today.
“I was 17 or 18 at the time and wasn’t getting many games,” Baldock says as we relax in the dug-out. “So when the chance came to go to a top side in Iceland, a Premier League side, I jumped at it. Playing mens football toughened me up not only physically but psychologically too. We had 23 hour long sunshine at one point so it was really hard to sleep. We trained in the evening because a lot of the guys had other jobs like going out on the boats. I also got to try something I didn’t realise was a local delicacy until I got there: rotten fish. It stinks but contains something like 80 per cent protein so it’s very good to eat.”
Having developed a taste for Hákarl, which is actually raw and fermented shark, Baldock returned to England and established himself as a first team regular at Stadium MK before joining United in June. Described by Chris Wilder as one of the best wing-backs in the English Football League, his recent absence due to injury has been cited as a major factor behind the South Yorkshire club’s slide from first to sixth in the table ahead of its trip to Lancashire. With Kieron Freeman ruled-out until after Christmas with a dislocated knee, being able to select Baldock in this most specialist of positions will, coaching staff believe, help restore some balance to a squad which enters the match having taken only a point from its last four games.
“Kieron is a really good friend of mine so I was happy for him that it wasn’t as serious as it might have been,” Baldock says, referring to Freeman’s mishap during October’s victory over Ipswich Town. “It’s strange how it’s worked out though because, up until recently, the gaffer hasn’t had to choose between us because when he’s been out, I’ve been okay and vice versa. He’s a really good player and competition is something you need if you want to get results.”
Baldock has been troubled by fitness issues since leaving the Dons where, together with his older brother Sam, he turned professional after graduating from their youth system. But tracing his problems back to a truncated pre-season, the 24-year-old is now ready to help United get back to winning ways.
“We’ve had a great start,” Baldock insists. “But, looking at the gaffer’s comments, you can tell he wants to drive it on and for us to improve. We do too. That’s what makes him so respected, the fact he won’t accept just being average. He always wants to get better.”
Given his place in the Dons’ history books and hailing from nearby Buckingham, leaving Robbie Neilson’s side will have been something of a wrench. But Baldock, who started September’s victory over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough, reveals both he and his family quickly settled in the north. Although, with Sam now playing for Brighton and Hove Albion, his switch has caused some unexpected problems.
“My old man tries to balance it out,” Baldock laughs. “He gets all the fixtures out and highlights where he’s going. But he’s doing Arsenal away and Chelsea away and stuff like that with them. He must be a glory boy!
“Joking aside, he loves coming here and he brings quite a few of the family too. I put them up in the hotel the night before the game and they really enjoy that. They’re all fond admirers of the club already, they’ve really taken to the place, and my brother is coming up the first opportunity he gets as well.”
“It’s important to have a connection with the city, when you’re made to feel welcome, it gives you that confidence,” Baldock adds. “I’ve had no problems settling in whatsoever. I feel at home already. Sheffield is a great, vibrant city and the club is bouncing although, after what happened (against Wednesday) is that the right thing to say?”
Speaking after last week’s defeat by Bristol City, Wilder reminded supporters and journalists alike that United “are still in the race”, despite their recent chequered form. Although some commentators view their presence in the top six as a fairytale, Baldock disagrees.
“The keys are organisation and team spirit. But, more than anything else, we’ve got some really good players. There’s a lot of talk about the character here but that covers the fact we’ve got plenty of lads who can play at a higher level.
“I also think we’re one of the fittest teams in the league as well. One of the lads I know at Leeds told me that, how he couldn’t believe how ‘in their faces’ we were during our game there. That pressing, so long as it’s done properly, can be really horrible to play against.
“It would be a dream to get to the top level. It would be a dream come true. I think this club would embrace the Premier League. But there’s a long way to go yet and we’re not thinking about that.”