Big Interview: Andrew Lonergan

Theirs is the taxing job in football, the most dangerous and sometimes the least glamorous, as it is an established fact that the best goalkeepers make the job look easy – only when they make a mistake are they noticed.

They tread that fragile tightrope that comes with the territory as football's last line of defence.

Andrew Lonergan was nine years-old when he asked his parents for a pair of goalkeeper's gloves and a dark green football jersey.

From that moment on he wanted to make a living as a goalkeeper.

"I was always fascinated by the goalkeeping art, and even from that age, that was all I wanted to do with my sporting life," said Lonergan.

"It has always been an obsession for me. I love it more now than when I was a kid.

"I lived in Farringdon Park then, and we'd run down to the Tickled Trout Hotel, where the away teams would stay if they were at Preston or Blackburn.

"I'd get my gloves signed, and wait for hours for autographs.

"A goalkeeper is a unique position, but a lonely one too.

You are in a team, but sometimes it is just about you, in a sense.

"It's funny, because I wouldn't recommend it to kids coming into the game.

"There are a lot of down-sides, and you have to possess great mental strength.

"But I'm a goalkeeping addict, and, even at 14 when I was at St

Cecilia's School at Longridge, I never ever thought I wasn't going

to be a professional footballer.

"My life was football, football, football.

"I don't know why – I just thought it would happen and it did."

Lonergan was born in Preston 23 years ago, and his love affair with Deepdale has deepened in that time. Two years ago, his potential and immense talent had courted the interest of the Premiership, with Arsenal

rumoured to be ready to take Lonergan to Highbury.

However, a cruciate ligament injury – 24 hours before North End's televised game against Ipswich in February 2005 – turned Lonergan's world upside down.

For the past 18 months, he has fought his way back to the Deepdale starting blocks again.

It has tested both his physical and mental resolve.

"It was a painful time, and quite a difficult period to deal with, I suppose.

"Even in the darkest moment, I never doubted that I'd play again.

"That didn't cross my mind once, even when I had a setback when the construction work on the knee collapsed, while on loan at Wycombe.

"It has given me a different perspective on life, though.

"You do change, don't you?

At 18 you are fearless and you don't think about the consequences.

"Before the injury, I don't think I was ever happy in the training ground environment.

"Everything had to be correct, right down to the very last detail.

"I could be intense, but I'm a perfectionist, I suppose.

"Off the field I'm a very laidback lad, who loves life, but when

it came to preparation, little things annoyed me then.

"For example, if the balls were not pumped up properly or my boots were not sparkling clean it riled me.

"It didn't get me down – it fired me up.

"Even now, if I drop a ball in training or I'm not happy with something, I'll carry on working until I get it right.

"If that means coming back for three hours, I do it.

"I want to be better than the previous day, otherwise what's

the point?

"I'd gone back for extra training the day I hurt my knee.

"I jumped high for a cross and landed awkwardly.

"When they told me I'd be out for nine months, I thought 'no chance' – I was numb with shock.

"The thing that annoys me most, though, is that people have this perception that I'm injury-prone.

"I had a knee injury, but I'm back now and that's in the past."

Lonergan has served precious time under David Moyes, Craig Brown, Billy Davies and now Paul Simpson, who wisely secured Lonergan on a longterm

contract until 2012 last month.

"Paul Simpson is the most positive manager I've worked under at Preston," he said.

"He is an exceptional manmotivator, and, for me, he has proved a breath of fresh air here.

"When I was injured, I don't think Billy Davies said two words

to me in 18 months.

"I didn't feel like he respected me in any way at all.

"He never once asked how I was getting on. You can't do that

can you?

"I just felt like a shy YTS lad, when the manager didn't speak

to you.

"I didn't feel like an adult around Billy. He made me feel like a kid, and I wasn't happy how he treated me. I thought, 'This is rubbish' and it was.

"If I'd been playing it might have been different, because obviously Billy looked after the lads who were involved.

" Don't get me wrong, Billy is a fine manager, but it was hurtful how he

dealt with me.

"Things are different under Paul Simpson, though. He is a very

approachable individual, and most genuine.

"Everybody feels comfortable around him, but on the flip-side, things are run very professionally, and it is how a club should be.

"I think the boys are happier now. They are not frightened to try something different.

"He allows you to improvise and work things out.

"If you try something that doesn't quite click, then you are not going to get a major rollicking.

He'll just say, 'Well done, try again'.

"The training is very fresh and we are allowed to express ourselves now.

"It is a different outlook on the game, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

"When you are not playing it is easy to lose motivation, but I look forward to going to work every day under this manager."

Lonergan is a sunny young man with a big smile for the world.

And when we sit and talk he reminds me of Andrew Flintoff in those early days, when he was just a Ribbleton lad, long before international super-stardom changed his life forever.

He is an uncomplicated Prestonian with a genuine zest for life and talks fondly about his earliest Deepdale memories.

"I'd go to Deepdale with my mates and I loved watching Andy Saville, Steve Wilkinson, Mark Rankine, and Sean Gregan.

"Greegs was the man, though, wasn't he? A Deepdale legend, I reckon.

"He sort of summed up the new spirit at Deepdale and the North End revival.

"I'd watch him play every Saturday and shout him on.

"Suddenly, though, I was in the first team with him. That was very weird.

"Lee Cartwright was a great lad too. I went away to London with North End and I had to share a hotel room with Lee.

"I was a bit nervous because he was one of the senior professionals.

But he even let me watch what I wanted on television!

"Seriously, though, the expectation has risen dramatically at Preston, and that brings a new challenge.

"Sometimes, I hear the younger fans moaning if we draw a game now.

However, forthe size of our club, we are massively over-achieving.

"We are not one of the big boys in the Championship – able to sign a 4m striker – and sometimes the supporters can lose sight of that.

"Preston nearly went out of the league 20 years ago and there's a younger generation who have never known those hard times.

"But if we can keep the side intact this month, I think we can

achieve automatic promotion this season."

He smiles when I mention the frantic speculation surrounding Dave Nugent's Deepdale future.

Lonergan has experienced a similar level of interest in the past, but perhaps not to the same degree.

"I loved it. That's how I felt and I expect Nuge will feel the same emotions.

"When you are 21, and somebody is writing in a newspaper that Arsene Wenger or whoever is looking at you, then that's an amazing buzz.

"It is better than somebody not writing about you.

"It was a big positive for me.

It just made me play better and that improved me as a keeper.

"A Premier League club wanted to sign me, but it didn't happen for various reasons.

"If I can get back to that level again, then I'll have done okay."

Lonergan recalls David Moyes handing him his debut in September 2000, for a second round League Cup tie at Coventry, aged 16.

"I didn't know I was playing until an hour before when Moyes said,

'Lonners, have a look at the pitch, you're playing'.

"I didn't feel nervous at all – I was ready for it.

"I remember seeing their goalkeeper, Chris Kirkland, striding out on

the pitch and I thought, 'Flippin heck, look at the size of him'.

"I was only a little lad and a year before I'd been playing for Preston

schoolboys."

Avid Deepdale watchers will recall Lonergan starting the 2004-05 season as first-choice goalkeeper under Craig Brown.

A month later, with Davies now at the helm, he was North End's unlikely

goalscorer in a 1-1 draw at Leicester.

"People talk about my goal at Leicester, but it was a complete fluke.

"It overshadowed the best save I've ever made.

"Dion Dublin headed the ball at me from seven yards, and it had the power of a shot, but somehow I managed to scoop the ball off the line, even though I was falling the wrong way.

"Dion Dublin went, 'Blimey, mate how did you stop that?' – I just shrugged my shoulders and replied, 'I dunno'.

"I had watched Dublin on the television as a kid, and when he said that, it made me feel a bit special.

"But I watched the tape afterwards and I couldn't see the save properly. I was devastated.

"Now, good saves don't mean a lot to me.

"Any goalkeeper can make a great save, but it is the nuts and

bolts of goalkeeping – how you kick, distribute and organise – that

I concentrate on.

"I love the craic, though. A few strikers do a bit of chirping in

your ear, stand on your toes or pull your hair.

"You get one or two who think they're 'big time', and I always

have a smile.

"I remember one, who is playing in the Premiership now. Jokingly, at

a corner, I said to him, 'What are you doing here?'.

"He just looked at me as if I was a piece of dirt, so I gave him a

dig a few minutes later."

Lonergan knows he is an exceptional goalkeeper but, while he is

fiercely confident in his own ability, he is a modest man.

I ask Lonergan about the future. Where does he see himself in three years?

"Playing for England and with Preston North End in the Premier League.

"You have got to aim high,haven't you?

"I want to play every game of every season.

"If I do that, I will be in the Premier League.

"There's no way I want that to sound big-headed, I've just got a positive outlook.

"There's no point in playing if you think you are not good enough.

"I want to be in the Premier League and if we go up in May, then

everything changes.

"Preston North End is ready for the Premier League now, and as a

Preston lad it would be extra special if we made it."