Craig Salmon talks to Preston North End legend Paul McKenna
You get the feeling battle hardened veteran footballer Paul McKenna does not quite believe in fairy tales.
The 36-year-old former Preston captain speaks with pride – and without cynicism – when he reflects on his long professional football career.
It could be argued that McKenna’s life has been one big fairy tale.
Born and bred in the small village of Eccleston – near Chorley – the diminutive midfielder grew up to become a modern day North End legend.
In a 17-year stint at Deepdale, he donned the famous lilywhite shirt on 470 occasions – more times than the great Sir Tom Finney.
The tenacious and cultured ball player then went on to serve Nottingham Forest and Hull City with distinction after leaving Preston in 2009.
McKenna admits he cannot ever begin to complain about the particular cards life has dealt him.
But deep within his heart, he will always be scarred by the fact that he was never able to showcase his talents on the biggest stage of all – the Premier League.
Barring his first few years at PNE as a young pro in the 1990s, McKenna spent his entire career in the Championship.
On several occasions, he was an instrumental figure as North End pushed for promotion to the top flight of English football.
History will tell you that the club reached the Championship play-offs on three separate occasions during the noughties.
Each time their Premier League dream was denied – most agonisingly of all against Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United in the respective finals of 2001 and 2005 at the Millennium Stadium, in Cardiff.
In total, McKenna was part of six failed play-off tilts over the course of his career at Deepdale.
And if he thought his luck would change by moving clubs, then he was to be very much mistaken as his two-year stint at the City Ground was riddled with yet more play-off agony.
It is ironic that in the season McKenna played his part in a Premier League promotion-winning team, he was coming towards – what turned out to be – the end of his professional career at Hull in 2013.
Now playing for local non-league outfit Bamber Bridge, McKenna is looking forward to being in the thick of the action today for Brig’s crunch FA Cup tie against his home-town club Chorley at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium.
The winners of this weekend’s encounter will go through to the fourth round of qualifying where they will be just one win away from the first round proper – and a possible meeting with a Football League club.
Conceivably, McKenna is just two victories away from a romantic and, dare I say, emotional return to Deepdale.
But fairy tales do not happen...or do they?
“That would be ironic if that was to happen,” said McKenna, with a hint of a wry smile.
“But I look back on my time at Preston with a lot of fond memories.
“It was a great club for me. Being a local lad it meant I could still live at home and be around my friends and family.
“I joined the club in 1992 and left in 2009, so I was there for a long time, but it seems like a lifetime ago now since I was there.
“I remember six months after I left and moved to Forest, it seemed like a lifetime ago when I was at Preston.
“It’s funny how things move on quickly.
“When I was there, it was a club which was on the up and up.
“When I first joined, the club was in League Two as it were, but they gained promotion the first year I turned pro.
“We then won the title to win promotion to the Championship in 2000 and I managed to play in that team.
“And then we became a well established Championship outfit for 10 years.
“We were always pushing for promotion as well.
“Everybody knows about the two play-off final defeats.
“I think in total I was involved in six play-offs with Preston, which shows, I suppose, how successful we were.
“We did brilliantly year in, year out, especially when you consider the size of the clubs that we were regularly coming up against.
“We were up against clubs with the finance and the big payrolls.
“I think there were only two or three years when we under achieved during that 10-year period in the Championship – the rest of the time we over achieved.
“In all my time at the club, we had two promotions and six play-offs...that says it all really.
“It’s just a shame we never managed to make it over the line and get to the Premier League.
“Do I have any regrets about that?
“Yeah I think about it every day.
“I would love to have had a crack at the Premier League just for one season.
“I had played virtually my entire career at the top end of the Championship.
“It’s ironic that the season I played in a team which won promotion to the Premier League was my last season in professional football with Hull.
“I must have played a third of the season, but then I went out on loan to Fleetwood.
“So the time I had actually played in a promotion-winning team, I was coming to the end of my career.
“It is bitter-sweet.
“On one hand it was nice being so close to promotion with Preston and then later with Forest and Hull.
“But at the same time it was frustrating that I never actually made it.”
Early in his career, there was talk that ex-Preston boss David Moyes was keen to take McKenna with him when he was appointed manager of Everton.
However, the move never materialised, but the ex-PNE midfielder is convinced he would have flourished at the highest level if he had been handed the opportunity.
“I think if I had got a chance in the Premier League, I would have done okay,” he said.
“I left Preston to go to Forest because it was a chance of signing for a really big club and a chance to have a good crack at getting in the Premier League. In my first season, we finished third behind Newcastle and West Brom, who had just come down from the Premier League.
“So it would have been a big achievement to finish above them.
“In my second season I think we finished fourth, so in two years there I finished twice in the play-offs.
“The year after I went to Hull and I played most of the games in my first season and I think we finished seventh – so just outside the play-offs.
“So I always played in teams which were there or thereabouts, but I never actually made it over the line.
“It is frustrating, but I can’t look back with any regrets.
“All in all I had a great career and played for some great clubs.
“I should be thankful for what I did in my career.”
McKenna believes Preston’s decade-long stay in the Championship was built around a tremendous team spirit and a continuity in terms of the playing squad.
The former PNE stalwart also points to the calibre of manager the club was able to appoint during his time, which included Moyes, Billy Davies and Alan Irvine.
“I was fortunate to play for some good managers and to be at a club which was well run at the time,” McKenna said.
“We had a lot of good players and we didn’t have lots and lots of ins and outs.
“Players tended to come and stay for four, five, six years – even longer.
“There were people like myself, Graham Alexander, Richard Cresswell, Ryan Kidd, Michael Jackson, Sean Gregan, Mark Rankine, Simon Davey.
“We all stayed at the club for a long time.
“We all knew each other inside out and I like to think we were all on a par with each other.
“There were no big hitters who came in on big money.
“I think that’s what causes a lot of rifts in dressing rooms these days... when you have got players coming in above their station.
“There was a lot of stability at the club. We had a great team spirit – we all used to go out and socialise together.
“They were great days and it was nice playing in a team which was so successful.”
McKenna admits Preston will always be his team and is affection for the club remains untarnished.
“I can always go back to Deepdale with my head held high,” he said.
“Since I left, a lot of fans have said some nice things about me.
“It’s good that the fans appreciate what I did and I’ll always have a strong affiliation with the club.
“I’ve still got a lot of friends down there – a lot of the staff like Ben Rhodes.
“When I go down to the ground, they make me feel dead welcome.
“The fact that they make me so welcome now kind of shows that I did okay while I was there.
“I was gutted to see them get relegated and I would love to see them back in the Championship soon.”
McKenna’s last act as a professional player was in the colours of Fleetwood Town, working under former team-mate and fellow PNE stalwart Alexander.
He moved to Highbury on loan from Hull towards the end of the 2012/13 season, but despite making 15 appearances, was not offered a permanent contract by the Cod Army at the end of the season.
Released that summer by Tigers boss Steve Bruce, McKenna reached a crossroads in his life.
With his two young sons – Jack and Charlie – growing up, he concentrated on his family and pursued business interests, rather than seek a fresh footballing challenge.
However, after spending 18 months out of the game, he began to get itchy feet and has jumped at the chance to sign for Brig, who play their games in the semi-professional NPL First Division North.
McKenna opted for Brig because it’s the right balance between football and family life.
“I think I had come to a crossroads in my life after I left Hull,” he said.
“I asked myself whether it was worth me carrying on playing or should I focus on starting a life outside of football.
“I had started my own business and that was doing okay.
“So I just decided to do that and for the first time, I had a year without football.
“But as time went on I still felt I had something to offer.
“l still feel quite fit so I just decided to give it another whirl.
“I did play a game for Stockport earlier in the season with a view to signing for them.
“But in the end I decided not to because the thing which has been holding me back from playing again is all the travelling and having your weekends taken up with football.
“I have got two boys now. They are playing football now and I go and watch them on a Saturday morning in Penwortham.
“So playing for Brig tides in nicely with family life really.
“There’s not as much travelling involved, although it’s still a big commitment at semi-pro level.
“But I told the management at Brig exactly where I stood with everything and they were fine with it.
“So for me, it works well. I still get to take my boys to football in the morning and then I can go and play in the afternoon.
“It’s all about enjoyment now. It’s different to when I played professionally.
“The pressure is not the same. I could pack it all in tomorrow if I wanted to.
“All I want to do now is just enjoy my football.
“It would be great to have a bit of success with Brig and help them win promotion.
“It’s just nice to be back in the changing room with the lads and get involved in all the banter which flies about.”
Longer-term, McKenna has no real ambition to become a manager, but is currently taking his coaching badges and is interested in working with youngsters. He has been coaching once a week at North End’s School of Excellence, which he thorough enjoys
“Management is not something I have thought about too much,” he said.
“I never wanted to be a manager when I was a player that’s why I have never done my coaching badges up until now.
“People have mentioned it to me and I would like to get my badges in case an opportunity comes up in the future because I would never say never.
“Football is all I know really, but some people go into management and some people don’t.
“Being a manager never appealed to me but what I would say especially since having my own kids and with all the knowledge that I have gained over the years that I would like to give something back.
“I am helping out at Preston with the Under-15s and Under-16s on Wednesday nights. I volunteer and gives me a bit of experience.
“That’s nice for me and I have been learning off Brian O’Neill and Andy Fensome, who are really good coaches.
“It would be nice if I could help develop a few kids.”