The Big Interview: Michael Appleton

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Ex-Preston North End midfielder Michael Appleton talks to Tony Dewhurst as part of a special two-part feature.

Michael Appleton is a man who stirs the spirit.

In recent years most of his considerable energy has been devoted to getting his life back on track.

Appleton was awarded 1.5m in damages last year after the High Court ruled a surgeon had wrongly operated on a knee injury and curtailed his career.

He can take stock now, and under questioning proved no less impressive than he had been through several years of letting his talent do the talking at Deepdale.

Appleton is now 33, but when he signed for North End from Manchester United for 500,000 in August 1997, it not only represented a Deepdale record but a genuine transfer coup.

"I found the first year at Preston really difficult," he recalled.

"The fee was a big deal for Preston, but was that a bit of a pressure on me? I don't know. I could probably use that as an excuse and say it was, but it wasn't.

"I was a Salford lad, brought up 10 minutes away from Old Trafford. It was a big wrench leaving Manchester United.

"I'd made my debut with Roy Keane in front of 52,000 at Old Trafford, and for two-and-a-half years I had trained and travelled the world with some of the greatest players on the planet.

"All the things I'd dreamed about as a kid, I lived it.

"You just never forget that. But when you leave the biggest club in the world there's only one way to go, and that's down.

"I don't want that to sound disrespectful to Preston, a great club, but like hundreds of players before me at Old Trafford, I had to take a few steps down to get myself up again.

"I was coming from the comfort zone of Manchester United's reserves, winning games every week and knowing you were better than the

opposition.

"Suddenly, I was in the cut and thrust of the Second Division and there was a real raw edge to it.

"I loved the physical challenge, but mentally I found it harder to cope, getting yourself tuned in, often three times a week.

"I was shoulder to shoulder with family lads, with bills and mortgages to pay. It was a different world.

"But even when I was having a tough time, the Preston fans stood by me and to this day I've appreciated that.

"Every game meant so much to the lads, but what I experienced was an intense camaraderie. And when you won a game it was the best feeling in the world."

Deepdale was a world away from the glitz and glamour of Old Trafford.

"Definitely. It was like, 'This is where I am for the next four years. And this is what I've got to cope with and deal with'.

"It was a proper culture shock. My kit would be laid out at Old Trafford, boots sparkling clean. Everything was done for you.

"At Preston I had two kits and I had to take the other one home every day to wash.

"I was in the real world at Deepdale – and it was what football was all about."

After years in the doldrums, Appleton was to play a key role in that North End revival, and three years later Preston were champions of Division Two.

It was a vintage season for the aggressive ball-winner, with 20,000 packing in to Deepdale to witness skipper Sean Gregan lifting the trophy high above his head on a warm April afternoon.

It is difficult to adequately convey his enjoyment of that Deepdale experience for him personally.

"Preston was the most rewarding and enjoyable time of my career.

"There was such a strong inner-belief, a great blend and a lot of genuine friendships were forged. That's what made it so special.

"We didn't scream and shout about it, deep down we just knew.

"There was also a sense in the town, which we felt in the dressing room too, that PNE was getting back to where it used to be.

"Preston was coming back to life again. There was a great excitement about the place and that had been building for 18 months before we won the title.

"We won promotion at Cambridge, but lost 2-0 at the Abbey Stadium.

"It was a strange day.

"It left a bit of a sour taste getting beat, even though we'd done all the hard work in the previous 43 games.

"We were all annoyed that we'd let ourselves down and agreed it wasn't good enough.

"We vowed to win our last two games against Millwall and Bristol City, which we did.

"But that summed up the attitude and enduring spirit in that Preston squad."

Gary Peters had signed Appleton, but it was David Moyes who finally drove North End across the line.

"I think David Moyes found the transition difficult at first because he had gone from a friend to some of the players to their boss.

"You could see it then, though, he was massively thorough and with a meticulous attention to detail.

"We played some great stuff, and were a well-organised team.

"He has stamped his personality on Everton in just the same way he did at Preston – the way they play, how hard they are to beat, and their will to win.

"It is a good way to manage, I think.

"If you try to become something you're not, then you become unstuck because players see through you very quickly today."

Appleton is deeply knowledgeable about the game, but loves to talk about that Deepdale promotion year.

"For me, David Eyres typified that Deepdale era.

"He had a rare ability to come up with something special in a game – a killer pass or a thunderbolt free-kick.

"David was 36, yet he had the enthusiasm of a 21-year-old. And that zest for life rubbed off on the other lads.

"He was the joker in the dressing room, a very popular guy.

"But he was also an incredibly important part of that squad, because he brought that crucial balance to the left side of the team."

The powerful momentum continued the following season, and nine months later North End were knocking on the door of the Premier League.

They reached the play-off final, before losing to Bolton Wanderers.

"I think stepping up a division allowed people to really see what I could do," added Appleton.

"I got a little bit more time on the ball and I was able to use my craft a bit more.

"The lads would rib me because I was always getting player of the month, but I felt good and played with freedom.

"I just remember Preston was fun, that's how I felt when I played there.

"I live in Longton, so to go out in Preston and be recognised eight years after leaving PNE is so special.

"People ask me about goals and matches, and there's one stands out – against Blackpool , a 3-0 win at Deepdale.

"I don't score many headers, but that was one was special and the PNE fans tend to remember the goals against Blackpool."

After making 145 North End appearances, he moved to West Bromwich Albion in a 750,000 deal – but two years later his career was over.

Now he is cutting his teeth in coaching and was among the front-runners for the manager's job at Grimsby and Huddersfield this season after impressing as Albion's assistant academy manager and reserve team coach.

His Preston roots remain strong. His wife Francesca is a local girl and Appleton has recently taken over the Sitting Goose pub in Lower Bartle, near Preston, with his brother-in-law Ryan Cookson. And that's where we meet for lunch.

"I admire all managers and I want to be a manager," he added.

"A manager's job is 10 times harder than it was in 2000 when we won the league at Preston.

"Management has changed because of the money in the game, and I think players are a lot harder to deal with.

"Players know their necks aren't on the line, and it seems to come too easy to them these days.

"The one thing I've really missed, though, is the pressure, feeling the intense anticipation before a match.

"That's the one thing more than anything I want to get back, and the only way I can do that is by becoming a manager.

"I genuinely think I'll be a better manager than I was a player.

"I like dealing with players and I enjoy managing people.

"The pressure doesn't bother me – I thrive on it and I love having to make decisions.

"I want to taste success in football again.

"And that's what I want more than anything.

"Football has been good to me, and I hope to be involved for the next 25 years.

"My time at Preston was full of fun, winning football matches with a load of mates.

"That's what it felt like, and it was a truly special three-and-a- half years for me."

More from Michael Appleton next Saturday