THE BIG INTERVIEW
It’s probably safe to say that new Preston Grasshoppers head coach Michael Lough is a ‘fair dinkum’ Prestonian.
The 36-year-old former Hoppers fly-half may be a proud Australian, who originally hails from Adelaide, but he is equally honoured to call Preston his home.
Having arrived in the North West as a fresh-faced 21-year-old on a year out in 1997, Lough enjoyed his time in the North West of England so much that he decided to stay permanently.
Since then, he has given 15 years of unstinting service as both a player and coach for the Hoppers.
Off the pitch, he has settled in Penwortham with his wife, Joanna, and young daughters Emma (7) and Sophie (4).
And he’s even set up his own digital marketing agency called Blue Wren, which is based in Chapel Street in the city centre.
So you can imagine the pride he felt when he was asked to take the top job at his beloved Hoppers last month – replacing previous incumbent Dave Baldwin, who left at the end of last season to take up a similar position at Leeds Carnegie.
Lough – whose brothers Tim and Andrew also played for Hoppers – said: “In 1997, I came to Preston – I took a year out and decided I would play rugby over here in the UK.
“I met someone from this city over in Australia and they told me to go to Preston.
“I joined the Hoppers and I enjoyed it so much, I’ve been here ever since.
“I played for the first team for seven or eight seasons and I just loved it.
“I will always be a proud Australian, but I have always enjoyed living here.
“I think I can call myself a proud Prestonian.
“Obviously, the weather is a bit rubbish compared to Australia, but I started my business here.
“I got married and had a family here.
“I’ve got lots of friends and family – Preston is just a warm and friendly place.
“And the rugby club is an essential part of my life and I’m so proud to be the new head coach.”
Lough arrived in Preston with a notable playing reputation having represented Australia’s rugby sevens team.
He soon put his skills to good use for his new club and was the star of the show when Hoppers won the National League Division Two title in 1999.
He went on to skipper the team and made 175 appearances, amassing 362 points.
He said: “One of the highlights of my playing career with Preston was the year we got promoted and won the division that we are in now, in the 1998/99 season.
“I scored 27 tries in 26 games and I was named player of the league that year.
“I always remember that season because there were a number of games that we nearly lost, but managed to win.
“To do so well with the team that year gave me a lot of satisfaction because when we played there was a large core of players who lived around Preston.
“So we all socialised together and all knew each other well and we are all still good friends.
“In fact, the first game of the season is always sponsored by the ex-players, so they are all coming to watch our first league game – my first game as head coach – this season, which will make it a little bit more nerve-racking.
“Obviously representing Australia in the sevens was a great honour for me.
“I once played against Jonah Lomu when we faced New Zealand – that was quite intimidating.
“I did not get too close to him during the match – he was an awesome beast of a player.
“England came out at one point and we played against them.
“Matt Dawson, Will Greenwood, Paul Grayson and Richard Hill were in their team.
“There were probably about five or six players who went on to win the World Cup and when we played them, they absolutely killed us.
“I toured Japan with the Australia sevens – that was an amazing experience – and I also went to South Africa.
“I played against Bobby Skinstad, who went on to captain the Springboks, and players like Percy Montgomery.”
After retiring from playing, Lough maintained an active role within the Hoppers organisation.
Initially coaching the youngsters, Lough was promoted to second-team boss two years ago.
After guiding the second string to the league title last season, his success obviously didn’t go unnoticed by the club’s hierarchy and, when Baldwin handed in his resignation, Lough was the obvious choice to take over.
Helping Lough this season are the experienced Karl Fitzpatrick and Alan Holmes, who will act as player coaches.
“Becoming head coach for me wasn’t expected,” Lough said.
“Dave Baldwin finished the season as coach and it was anticipated that he would continue but he then got the job at Leeds.
“After Dave left, it was a case of, do we bring in somebody new who will have their own way of doing things or do we try and continue with what we have got and build on that?
“So there is me as head coach and there are two player coaches – Karl Fitzpatrick and Alan Holmes – who have been retained from the previous season.
“We thought that made sense to build on the momentum from last season rather than have a space and then, not so much start all over again, but bring in a new head coach who could potentially change everything.”
Lough is convinced the new three-man coaching set-up will be a success this season.
He added: “I am a one-club person – I’ve always been involved with the Hoppers.
“Karl has a rugby league background. He is very strong in the skills and fitness department, and defence and conditioning.
“He comes with a background which has been honed in a very professional set-up.
“He has helped significantly in bringing the professional element to training and also to the way we look after ourselves outside of training and the way we conduct ourselves as well.
“Alan was at Fylde until last year. He’s a technical specialist particularly in the forwards department.
“But you have to remember they will be playing this season, so we didn’t want to create a potential conflict where a player, who is also a coach, has a responsibility for selection as well.
“That’s why we have me who is independent and sits above them and picks the team.
“Then the rest of the players can see there is a transparency and trust.
“I will have a major input on general strategic and tactical play.
“Being on the sidelines, I will be able to see how the games unfold, I’ll be able to have that input as well.
“It’s a pretty flat structure. All three of us have an equal say in the way things are done.
“However, I will have the final decision, which makes it fair on everybody.
“We all think the same way in any case.
“We are three guys who are relatively new to coaching so the experience may not be there, but we are all very enthusiastic.
“And all three of us have a very strong playing pedigree.”
Hoppers enjoyed a hugely successful season last year finishing third in National League Division Two North – finishing just one place outside the play-offs.
Lough admits that expectation levels are high, although he knows Hoppers are not a club which chases unrealistic ambitions to the detriment of the rest of the set-up.
He added: “Our ambition is to improve on last season certainly.
“Obviously every season is different, the personnel of the squad is slightly different from last season.
“The target is a play-off place, but we don’t set specific end-of-season targets at the start because we don’t think it works.
“I think Preston has always been a good, sustainable club.
“It’s not chased promotion at the expense of potential financial ruin.
“We also have not chased promotion at the expense of being a holistic club.
“Whereas some clubs might put lots of time and money into the first team to the detriment of the rest of the club, I think the philosophy of Preston Grasshoppers is certainly not that.
“The whole club goes forward or no one does.
“Otherwise you get a club within a club, and that can alienate people and cause potential friction.”
Even so the competitive streak in Lough means he will be out to improve upon last season’s effort ,even though he knows former coach Baldwin is going to leave big shoes to fill.
He said: “Dave’s a very tough act to follow.
“He’s had a lot experience – he’s been 10 years in the job at various clubs.
“He brought a lot to the club, but I’m not another Dave Baldwin.
“Myself, Karl and Alan all have our own philosophies of how we want to play the game and it’s similar to how it was played last year under Dave.
“But we have put some of own stamp on the job.
“Dave had a positive influence on us all and we want to maintain and build on that.
“We did really well at the start of last season and then went on a bit of sticky patch in the middle.
But then we came good again at the end and we won 10 on the bounce.”
Hoppers begin their season against Darlington two weeks today.
Squad-wise, Lough will still have the services of Sean Long to call upon but Nathan Fowles will not be back at Lightfoot Green next season as his parent club Sale have loaned him out to Fylde. Lough admits there are a few butterflies in his belly at the moment as he awaits the first game of the new season.
“I’m feeling a little anxious,” Lough said.
“I want to get off to a good start and I want us to play like I know we can play.
“But I don’t want it to be a disaster first game.
“You do have these nerves and so we won’t be going into the first game too over confident.”