BIG INTERVIEW: Ex-PNE star Graeme Atkinson

The Third Division title-winning season squad of 1995/96. Graeme Atkinson is on the front row, first left

The Third Division title-winning season squad of 1995/96. Graeme Atkinson is on the front row, first left

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It is 22 years since Graeme Atkinson stepped through the Deepdale entrance door to start his association with Preston North End.

He joined the Lilywhites in November 1994 from Hull City, sold a vision of progression by a club who had recently got new owners in the shape of Baxi.

Within 18 months, PNE had won the Third Division title, Gary Peters’ men lifting the trophy against the backdrop of the brand new Sir Tom Finney Stand – part one of the ground’s redevelopment.

Atkinson scored on his North End debut, always a good way for a new player to introduce himself.

Unfortunately it came in a 3-1 defeat at Hartlepool, with two of his team-mates failing to finish the game – Ryan Kidd and Stuart Hicks got red cards.

Wind the clock forward to 2016 and Atkinson still wears the Preston crest when he goes to work, the same one which had been on his shirt that freezing cold afternoon on the Teesside coast.

He is the education manager at the Preston North End Community and Education Trust.

Based in the Alan Kelly Town End at Deepdale, Atkinson oversees the education courses run by the trust.

There are 37 students on the level 2 and 3 BTEC course and seven more studying for a foundation degree in community coaching.

Atkinson intends becoming a familiar face at school careers evenings, showing that PNE can be a place for teenagers to do the next step of their education.

Since finishing playing, his background has been in sport education.

He worked at Myerscough College for 10 years and has a teaching qualification.

“Hopefully the students can see a pathway from level two BTEC through to a foundation degree and then a job here,” said Atkinson.

“They could branch into teaching, while I have a couple of students at the moment who attend coaching sessions with myself at PNE’s academy – that is an option.

“The students get a variety of experience, they work with primary school kids through our schools’ programme.

“They see the academy through the performance analysis system and are seeing the elite side of the club – the first-team players at weekends.

“Sometimes they get the chance to speak with the players in the classroom.

“Recently, we had Greg Cunningham come in to talk to them about how players handle injuries.

“Ali Lishman, the first-team analyst, is very supportive of us.

“We have got 15 of our first years on the FA referees’ course.

“By coincidence, five of the students were already qualified referees when they joined us.

“The classroom side of the courses is at Deepdale, with the practical work done at Playfootball in Ingol – that venue is key to the success we have had so far.

“I’m the education manager for the Trust, I oversee the staff and recruitment.

“It is about getting into schools with other career advisors and college representatives, telling people what we do.

“The word is spreading and we have managed to recruit a bit further afield.

“I started the job in January this year and it has gone very well so far.

“I want to make sure we have a programme which is enjoyable and has variety.

“My time in education started in 2005 and I have to be very thankful to Phil Brown at Myerscough College.

“He gave me an opportunity to keep my foot in the door in football at the end of my playing career.

“I got a part-time coaching role, helping out with the Myerscough College squads.

“The speed at which Myerscough grew, meant they were looking for staff.

“I was given a chance to dip my hand in at modular teaching and it was a natural progression to take up teaching.

“Long-term, it proved to be of real benefit – I have got a teaching qualification now.

“I had never really felt that football management was going to be my future.

“Education has been a different way of staying in football.

“Here at Preston, we are not trying to take over the world, we are trying to provide an unique education programme in a different environment.”

John Beck was North End’s manager in late 1994 when Atkinson made the move from home-town club Hull.

He was one of Beck’s last signings, with Gary Peters taking over a few weeks later.

“Even though John signed me, it was Gary who took me around Preston to show what the place was about,” said Atkinson, who celebrates his 45th birthday next week.

“At the time, we trained at Myerscough College, which was to play such a big part in my life later on.

“I remember leaving my wife sat in the car while I went with Gary to have a look at different places.

“An hour-and-a-half later, she was still sat there wondering where I was!

“Gary showed me the plans which Baxi had for the club, about redeveloping the ground and getting out of the Third Division.

“While you heard a few stories about John Beck, what impressed me about him was the way he rallied people to support the club.

“After I signed, Ray Sharp, Allan Smart and myself went to sign autographs in the old club shop before a reserve game.

“We then went to the game and there were 4,000 fans there.

“John Beck got the interest back in the club – people wanted to come and watch the games again.

“I scored on my debut, which was a big moment, but we finished with nine men that day when Ryan Kidd and Stuart Hicks were sent off.

“While it was a good start to score, I didn’t have the best of times in the first few months. I got an injury and found it tough to get back into the team for a while.

“David Beckham came in on loan and kept one or two out of the side – me included! We lost in the play-offs to Bury that season, however we went up in style the next year.

“By then we were totally ready and that was the pinnacle of my career.

“Before then, I’d had successes in my own right at Hull as I came through.

“We had won the Under-19s’ FA County Youth Cup, we won the Northern Intermediate Cup, beating Newcastle over two legs.

“Newcastle had Lee Clark, Steve Howey, Steve Watson and Lee Makel in their team, so beating them was a big achievement for us.

“At Hull, the reserve side got promoted in the Pontins League, meaning we got the chance to play at Old Trafford and Anfield.

“While those grounds were almost empty for reserve team games, as youngsters we were still playing on hallowed turf against seasoned professionals who were trying to get back into their first teams.

“I’d like to see a return to more reserve-team football – it would help young players in their development.”

Memories of the 1995/96 title-winning season are plentiful for Atkinson.

Some of the squad had a reunion a fortnight ago at the PNE Former Players’ Association annual dinner.

Said Atkinson: “There were plenty of tales that night, some of which could be repeated and some not.

“We were able to talk about a great season which was so enjoyable. A few of the lads we couldn’t track down and one or two couldn’t make it.

“Someone asked whether Dean Barrick was coming but I told them it might be difficult making it in time from China, where he lives now.

“We all have our memories of the season and a few games in particular stick in my mind for different reasons.

“The Sir Tom Finney Stand was being built at the time and for a while, that side of the ground was a building site.

“When we beat Mansfield 6-0, the ball went out for a throw-in on that side.

“Paul McKenna was a ballboy that day and had a ball ready to throw straight back to one of our players.

“The Mansfield players had switched off, thinking it would take a while for the ball to come back off the building site. We took a quick throw-in which Andy Saville scored from to complete a hat-trick.

“On New Year’s Day, we beat Cardiff 5-0.

“It was freezing cold, the pitch was hard and the kit man Brian Hickson told us to wear these new studs in our boots.

“They were a bit like the ones they wear now and to be fair, they worked a treat, there was just about enough give in the surface.

“We won 5-0, I scored one and had assists in two more.

“I had a free role that day, Gary changed the system and brought in Neil McDonald, sacrificing Steve Wilkinson as a striker.

“Neil sat between myself and Simon Davey in the centre of midfield, allowing us two freedom to roam.

“We had a great mix of players in the squad, the older ones like David Moyes, Ian Bryson and Russ Wilcox, a few in our 20s and then a couple of younger lads – Kevin Kilbane and David Lucas.

“We weren’t short of appearances in the squad – we knew the game and knew what a dressing room needed to be like.

“There were quite a few golfers at the club. On a day off nine or 10 of us would go for a game – Moyesy and Bryson would out-drive us all on the course.”

The PNE Community and Education Trust are holding an open evening on Thursday, November 10 (6.30pm) at Deepdale for students interested in enrolling on their courses.