Exclusive: Former Burnley and Preston North End skipper Graham Alexander is aiming to get back to the top

Graham Alexander is determined to get back to the top in football.

By Dan Black
Tuesday, 28th April 2020, 10:00 am
Graham Alexander in action for the Clarets against Spurs
Graham Alexander in action for the Clarets against Spurs

As a player the former Scotland international pushed himself to the limit in order to get the chance to compete at the highest level possible.

And the former Preston North End and Burnley skipper’s ambition has not subsided since turning his hand to management.

The 48-year-old, who is currently in charge at Salford City, wanted to experience the big occasions during his career, he wanted to play in the most iconic stadiums and test himself against some of the world’s best players.

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Salford City boss Graham Alexander and David Beckham embrace after the Vanarama National League Play Off Final between Salford City and AFC Fylde at Wembley Stadium.

He was able to do that domestically, during his one and only stint playing in the Premier League during the 2009/10 campaign, while adding further experiences internationally.

Alexander pitted his wits against Portugal’s Rui Costa and Luis Figo in 2002 and he later shared a pitch with Italian legends Fabio Cannavaro, Alesandro Nesta, Gianluca Zambrotta, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Marco Materazzi, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero.

Lilian Thuram, Eric Abidal, Franck Ribery, Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry all featured for France against the Scots in 2006, Carlos Tevez and Javier Zanetti lined up for Argentina in 2008, while Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben were all in action for the Netherlands for his penultimate appearance for his country.

Alexander, who became PNE’s joint-caretaker manager alongside David Unsworth, following the departure of Phil Brown in 2011, said: “That month in charge at Preston gave me the taste for it and I caught the bug.

Former Preston North End captain Graham Alexander battles for the ball

“That’s what made me come to the decision to retire – it was at that period where I decided to step over the line.

“I wasn’t expecting it and I didn’t know how long it was going to last, but I felt it was the natural break to make. I went to Fleetwood and that was that.

“As a player I wanted to play at the highest level and that’s the same in management. I’ve been a manager for six-and-a-half years and I’ve managed a couple of promotions with a couple of clubs.

“I’ve got a good few games under my belt, but I’m just like anybody else in professional football. We’re all ambitious and we all want to play, coach, manage as high as we can.

“I’ve still got that burning desire to be involved in the biggest occasions on the biggest platforms in the biggest grounds in the biggest games.

“That will always be inside me because I’m no different as a manager to what I was as a player.”

Alexander, who became only the second outfield player in English football history to have made 1,000 professional appearances, after Tony Ford, has already enjoyed success during his short spell in management.

He guided Fleetwood Town to League One via the play-offs in 2014 as the Cod Army overcame Burton Albion at Wembley.

And then he returned to Scunthorpe United where he secured another play-off campaign in 2017.

In 2018, Alexander took over at the helm at Salford City and recorded another play-off final triumph at the home of English football.

The Ammies beat AFC Fylde 3-0 to reach League Two after they had initially seen off Eastleigh in a penalty shoot-out.

Speaking about his time in management so far, Alexander said: “It’s good, tough, completely different from playing.

“It’s the same game, the same sport, but it’s a completely different world really.

“It’s the next best thing to playing for me. I love the coaching side with the players, being out on the pitch, I love being with the players and that’s the best part of it by a mile.

“We’re all working towards a common goal and it’s that teamwork where I get my buzz from.

“There are things that you’re not used to from being a player, but it’s part of the job so you can’t ignore it and brush it to one side. It’s just as important as a lot of the other stuff.

“It’s a tough job, but it can be rewarding if you’re fortunate enough and you do things right.

“To survive you have to have success and I was made aware of that very early on when I was looking to go into coaching.

“I spoke to a lot of very experienced people and they offered some sound advice about having success in your first job, otherwise you possibly don’t get a second one.!

“I took that on board and fortunately enough I had success in my first role at Fleetwood and I’ve had a little bit of success since with my other two clubs.

“You put so much work into the job behind the scenes and away from the matchdays that when you get the success out there on the pitch it makes it really rewarding from that perspective.

“You revel in the enjoyment that it gives to others as well, which is the biggest thing for me. You see your players celebrating with each other and they’re producing memories that will live with them forever.

“I know that from my own playing days. Leading that is very rewarding and you’re doing it for all the people that have shown faith in you – the bosses, the supporters.

“There are negatives on the other side if it doesn’t go so well, but that’s life, that’s the game, it’s a challenge and it’s all about trying to win that challenge.”

As well as majority owner Peter Lim, the former PNE favourite also answers to shareholders and ex-Manchester United stars David Beckham, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt.

Alexander appreciates that the landscape of the club is completely different to anything that he’s ever experienced before, but he admits that it’s something he adapted to quite easily.

Asked whether the profile of the board heightened the pressure of the job in any way, he said: “It’s different to the profile of the owners that I’ve worked for previously.

“I don’t think there are any owners in world football that tick the same boxes or the same profile brackets.

“They have that profile for a reason, they’re not just famous, they’re successful and their profile comes from what they’ve done in the game.

“It’s really good when you first meet them and you get to speak to them because you get to know the person behind the success.

“My main point of contact is with Gary Neville, the other guys are pretty much in the background.

“It’s through Gary that most of the decisions are made and discussed.

“All the other owners I’ve had have put faith in me to try and bring success to their clubs and that’s what they’re trying to do.

“They are trying to provide a platform for me to do my job and then it’s up to me to try and reward that support. When we’re in work, it’s work.

“The experience and knowledge that they have from being in the game at the top level for such a long time is invaluable and you know when they talk about the game that their opinion is valid.

“The first time I really felt it was in our first couple of games in the National League last year and the profile around those results was enormous for the level we were playing at.

“That’s when I realised we were in a slightly different scenario at Salford than what it was at other clubs.”

Alexander, who took charge of his 100th game for Salford City before the suspension of the season, added: “It’s a pressurised job, any manager in any of the divisions will tell you that.

“The pressure is always there for any manager, the spotlight might be on certain clubs more than others, but there’s always been pressure.

“I had it when I was at Scunthorpe and Fleetwood. Whenever I speak to another manager we all know what is expected of us and that’s to win games.

“I try to keep a balance on everything like that, I don’t really pay attention to the outside noise.

“I just try to do the best job that I can do for the club and all the other stuff can be discussed by other people.

“I don’t get involved, I just enjoy my job and I want to work hard for people and for myself. We’re all competitive people and we all naturally want to win for our own psyche, it’s in our genes.

“A lot of us have been footballers all our lives and we’ve been competing from the age of eight to be successful so we’re used to it. We probably put more pressure on ourselves than anybody else does.”