There is nothing forced about Graham Alexander’s love for Preston North End, the club that probably never had a serious rival for his allegiance and where his career ended on a fairtyale note exactly two years ago.
With just seconds of his professional career to go – and with retirement beckoning – Alexander lined up one final free-kick just outside the penalty area at Deepdale’s Town End.
His curling effort swerved around the Charlton Athletic wall and nestled in the bottom corner of the net.
Deepdale erupted and Alexander had a fitting finale to a marvellous career.
“If I could take one day out of my career, and a moment I’d like to re-live, it would be that one, scoring with my last touch in league football in my last game for PNE at Deepdale,” said Alexander.
“That incredible feeling, 20 seconds after the goal. The disbelief, and the reaction of the Preston fans is something that will live with me forever.
“I do get emotional each time I talk about it.
“It still seems surreal, even now.
“Every time I drive past Deepdale, it brings a tear to me eye.
“When I came on, with a few minutes left, my only thoughts were just get a couple of touches and don’t embarrass myself.”
Alexander had not played for six months, although in between he had stepped in to the Deepdale hot seat, a brief tenure as North End’s caretaker boss ahead of Graham Westley’s appointment.
“I’d ripped my hamstring against Stevenage, Phil Brown’s last game in charge,” he added, ‘And as I walked off the pitch I was thinking what a rubbish way to end my time at Preston.
“When we got the free-kick against Charlton, it wasn’t in my mind to shoot.
“I was going to hit it square to Will Hayhurst, who was making his debut.
“I looked up and Paul Coutts said, ‘You’ve joking aren’t you? Have a dig.’
“I’ve seen it on television, but the clips that I treasure most of all are the ones taken by the supporters from the Town End.
“You can hear them going, ‘Go on Grezza, just one last one.’
“It meant a lot to them I think. Those supporters showed me so much kindness and goodwill and I’ll never forget that.
“I couldn’t have ended my career with a better moment because Preston’s such a special club.
“I didn’t even mind getting a yellow card for celebrating with the fans.” Alexander still glows with pride when you mention Deepdale, and the many milestones he has passed since he landed at Lowthorpe Road’s door for £50,000 on transfer deadline day 1999.
He always gave his all for the PNE cause, always contributing whether in midfield or right-back.
He proved so unerring from the penalty spot for most of his career that his then Preston manager, Craig Brown, used to wave his players back to the half-way line before Alexander started his run-up.
“I don’t know what happened on that final day to create that moment, but my career wasn’t really like that,” he said.
“When I first started playing, my target was just one game.
“I just wanted to play once just so that I could say I was a professional footballer and no one could take that away from me.
“I was a fiery, sometimes angry youngster and I was quite cynical about football, playing in the lower divisions.
“I got to a play-off final with Luton and I thought that was going to be the story of my career.
“Maybe I had lost a bit of the fire in me – and football just became a job. But David Moyes re-ignited that fire.”
Eventually, he became only the second outfield player in English football history to make more than 1,000 professional appearances.
Only Tony Ford, with whom Alexander played alongside at Scunthorpe, had made it further.
When David Moyes signed him at 27, Alexander became one of his most trusted lieutenants at Deepdale.
But while PNE lifted the Second Division title a year later and followed up with a Play-off final appearance, Alexander said it took time for him to win Moyes over.
“What David Moyes gave me was a professionalism and a realisation that you can only be successful by how much you put into it,” he said.
“I thought I was fit and I’d convinced myself that I was doing it right, but I wasn’t.
“When I saw the workrate of Lee Cartwright and Michael Jackson, I thought, ‘Blimey. That’s how professionals should train.’
“These were players who were getting the maximum out of everything they had and I could see how much trust he put in them.
“I didn’t think I had Moyes’ trust for the first couple of years, though, and he didn’t give me an easy time either.
“He was constantly on at me, picking and poking my game to pieces.
“I thought, ‘Why has he signed me?
“Then one day he pulled me to one side and said if I didn’t think you could play higher than this then I would leave you alone.
“He showed me a newspaper clipping and it was him trying to push me into the Scotland squad.
“I was 29 and I thought, ‘This bloke actually rates me.
“He is certainly the most determined, focused manager I’ve met.
“David Moyes turned my career around in those three years at Deepdale.”
Alexander was awarded the first of his 40 caps for Scotland a year later and, after eight and half years at Deepdale, he moved to rivals Burnley in 2007, where he would fulfil a dream of playing in the Premier League.
Football has changed beyond recognition, of course, since Alexander made his debut on April 27, 1991, at Scunthorpe United before heading to Luton, PNE, Burnley and back to Deepdale for a combined fee of only £250,000.
“I was a 10-year-old for 30 years going out and playing football with friends,” joked the Fleetwood boss.
“But it is no use harping back to the old days, what you’ve got to do is try and keep the values of those times.
“What was the value?
“It was the joy of playing football.
“If that gets lost then football is finished.
“Sometimes, I’d see players out on the training ground and they didn’t want to be there.
“I’d think, ‘It was what you dreamt of as a kid, wasn’t it? Why are you not enjoying it?
“Maybe players get distracted by the paraphernalia around football now, instead of just enjoying it.
“Perhaps young players are getting too much too quickly.
“How does that lad listen to a coach saying, ‘You’ve got to do it this way if you want to be successful,’ when they are on £30,000 a week, got a Range Rover in the car park and they’ve not played a league game.
“Look at Lionel Messi and Ronaldo. They earn millions, but what is their drive?
“Their drive is to be the best player in the world.
“They have that boyish enthusiasm to succeed and that can take you a long way.”
n Alexander admits one of the most satisfying honours in a career spanning all four divisions was the Professional Footballers’ Association honouring him with a special merit award in 2012.
Previous recipients include Sir Tom Finney, Pele and Eusebio, Nat Lofthouse and the England 1966 World Cup squad.
The prize is presented by the union to those who have served the game well and this weekend the PFA will announce their national awards for the 2013-14 campaign.
“It was so incredibly special, to be recognised by your union in that way,” said Alexander.
“The PFA do such good work and to get recognition for what you have done in your career at any stage is great.
“When I looked at the previous PFA winners, like the legendary Sir Tom Finney, it was like ‘wow’ and certainly one of my proudest moments in football.
“I’m just a bit of a football nut and my wife’s got a running joke, whenever we go out as a couple, if it’s with anyone who’s interested in football then that’s all I’ll talk about for the rest of the night.
“We’ve been through a lot together and she’s kept me sane sometimes when things have got on top of me and snapped me out of it and been there for the good times as well.
“She was there to see me receive the PFA award, as were my parents, and they shared that special evening with me. A few years before that people had been writing me off, so to play in the Premier League and then finish my career in such a special way at Deepdale, and receive the recognition of the PFA was just so special.”
Now Alexander, left, is plotting a solid promotion course for Fleetwood – and reckons Deepdale boss Simon Grayson can guide Preston back to the Championship. “He has already got three promotions from League One with the same number of clubs, so North End must have a great chance under Simon Grayson,” added Alexander.
“He is a very down to earth man, and does his work in a very measured and hard working way.
“Preston’s a hard-working club, representing a hard-working city, so it is a good fit.
“Most of all, though, he knows how to organise a team and that’s why they are very hard to beat.”