BIG INTERVIEW: Craig Salmon talks to Preston North End’s official statistician Martin Atherton
Lifelong North Ender Martin Atherton is the ‘fount of all knowledge’ when it comes to facts and figures regarding his beloved club.
Want to know how many hat-tricks modern-day star Joe Garner has struck in a Lilywhite shirt or when the legendary Sir Tom Finney made his Preston debut – then 59-year-old Atherton is the ‘go to’ man.
As a supporter of PNE for nearly half-a-century and the club’s official statistician for the past 20 years, the father-of-four has built up a wealth of knowledge and data.
However, despite his vast library of information, there is one glaring omission from his stats book...he cannot pinpoint for sure the exact game when he himself first walked through the gates at Deepdale.
“I have been watching North End from the age of 11-years-old since 1968 and my favourite stat – or lack of stat – is that I can’t actually remember which was my first ever game,” Atherton said.
“I have narrowed it down to about two or three games that it could be.
“It was a night match – I know that – and it was a goalless draw.
“Having checked the records, I am certain it was a against Portsmouth in August 1968 on a Monday night.
“But there was another game against Watford which it could have been and there is also one other game which I can’t remember off the top of my head.
“So that’s the daft thing – I’m the club statistician, who can’t remember his own first game!”
If his earliest childhood memories and facts are a little bit hazy, there is no such confusion these days.
Atherton – who is a lecturer at UCLan – is almost part of the fixtures and fittings in the Deepdale Press room before games.
Clutching his trusty folder of information, the statistician spends the precious hours before kick-off dropping little nuggets of information and trivia into the conversation with journalists.
Not only does he keep the club’s records up to date, he also provides colour to North End articles and reports which appear in newspapers or other medium.
“From the start of my time as the club statistician, my job has been about making sure the club’s records are kept up to date, such as appearances by players, goals and things like that,” Atherton revealed.
“But it is also about giving a bit of colour to people like LEP reporter Dave Seddon or the radio lads – and sometimes occasionally television.
“So when something comes up which I think might be of interest, it is just a case of telling people about it.
“It might be a case of a player reaching a personal appearance milestone or a particular fact involving the opposition.
“I can remember five or six years ago when we beat Colchester United 7-0 in the FA Cup – the question I got asked by the Press was. ‘When was the last time North End scored seven in a match?
“Fortunately, for things like that, I knew the answer straight away – it was Cardiff in 1996 and we won 9-0.
“Sometimes you have to look things up and sometimes you do get asked some daft and bizarre stuff.
“I know Dave Seddon the other week asked me when was the last time North End conceded two penalties in a game?
“My answer was quite easy. I said to Dave, ‘It was against Port Vale last April – do you not remember? I was sitting next to you’.
“Watching North End for as long as I have, there’s a lot of information I know just by memory.
“Some things just stick and some things most fans generally know.
“Last year when Joe Garner scored four goals in a 5-1 win over Crewe...everybody knows the last person to do that was Alex Bruce against Colchester in 1978.
“The big part of the job is to provide a bit colour for the media.
“I know I have provided stuff for the LEP to use during the week when it might be a little bit quiet and they can turn something into a story.
“Just a few weeks ago I sent Dave Seddon the details of all the players that North End had signed directly from Manchester United over the years after we had signed both Ben Pearson and Liam Grimshaw in January.
“Dave did not ask for it, but I just thought it might be of interest and it made an interesting piece.”
Atherton revealed that he gets mixed responses from players when he offers little tit-bits of information to them about their careers.
He has discovered that some players are really keen to know about any milestones they have reached or about to reach, while others do not take too much notice.
“Some of the players are really interested in the stats – and some of them aren’t,” he said.
“I suppose it’s not that they are not interested, it’s just that they are just focused on the game and playing.
“There was one stat last season with Paul Gallagher.
“Paul has made more appearances on loan than any other player ever and he was also the first ever player to make 100 appearances on loan for one club when he played for North End against Peterborough.They are quite nice stats and you know they would make a nice little story in the newspaper.
“I remember seeing Paul after the game and I went up to him to tell him and he just said, ‘Oh right,okay...thanks’.
“He didn’t look like he was too bothered about it where as other players will come up asking.
“You might get people from the club coming up to me and saying, ‘So and so thinks he’s coming up to 200 appearances, is he right?’
“I know one player who was really interested in his own stats was Jon Macken – and still is.
“Michael Jackson was another.
“In fact, I remember sitting down with Jacko when he was doing his coaching badges.
“We watched a video of a game and he did the stats that I do during a game because apparently that is part of what they have to do when they are doing their coaching badges.
“He was really interested.”
One player’s statistics which Atherton always enjoys studying is the club’s greatest ever – Sir Tom, who passed away at the age of 91 in 2014.
From the appearances he made for North End to his remarkable goals-to-games ratio for England, Finney is a statto’s dream.
However, an investigation carried out by Atherton and his good friend – fellow statistician – Tony Woodburn revealed that the PNE great’s stats were, in fact, wrong.
“It was Tony who actually said that he believed Sir Tom’s figures were wrong,” Atherton said.
“He had been credited with a game, which he had not played in.
“The game in question was a FA Cup game at Sunderland.
“I remember there was a game at Sunderland once and me and Tony travelled up to the North East early so we could go to the local library.
“We had already checked the reports here in Preston and they had indicated Tom had not played in the game.
“So we double-checked the newspaper reports in Sunderland.
“Tony used to do a lot of that – sometimes he would also check with the national newspapers...triple, quadruple checks.
“From that we could safely say that Sir Tom’s figures were wrong and, of course, from that it meant somebody else was a game short in terms of their appearance tally.”
Although that anomaly appears to be a minor one, it proved to be costly for one particular fan of Sir Tom.
“I remember at the National Football Museum at Deepdale, there was the exhibition and celebration of Sir Tom’s life.” said Atherton.
“Sir Tom was there and there was a guy from Preston who had come along.
“He had restored a Lambretta scooter and painted it in North End’s colours.
“On the side of it, he had put Sir Tom’s figures and, of course, they were wrong.
“We met him on the night and told him and he took it in good heart.”
As a statistician, Atherton tries to keep his facts simple and straight forward, but admits there are fellow members of the statto club who take things to the extreme.
“I try not to go too overboard with the stats, but there are some out there who can tell you who has made the most appearances as a substitute in injury time and things like that.
“I tend not to go into that much detail.
“It was interesting to read Dave Seddon’s memory match in the LEP before the Brighton game last weekend because it contained a stat that I had given to his predecessor Brian Ellis.
“The match was when Preston had beaten Brighton 3-0 in 2005 and at the time I remember telling Brian that Brighton had not had a shot or won a corner in the entire 90 minutes.
“Brian had obviously included that stat in his match report at the time and Dave had obviously seen that and reproduced it.
“That was nice to see and it brought back memories because I remember at the time being sat in the stands at Deepdale and it looked like Brighton were going to have a shot in the 89th minute.
“I remember thinking, ‘Don’t you dare ruin this stat!’”
It was in the mid-1990s when Atherton was first approached by then North End chairman Bryan Gray to become the club statistician.
At the time Gray was in advanced talks about opening the National Football Museum at Deepdale and felt it prudent that the club should have its own data controller in place.
Atherton accepted the voluntary position only as long as he could share the position with his friend Tony Woodburn.
The pair worked together for the next 13 years, until Woodburn’s retirement in 2009, which resulted in Atherton taking over sole responsibility.
“I started in the role in 1996,” he said.
“I was only thinking about it the other day – it is 20 years that I have been doing it.
“It is a bit of weird situation because the club has had an official historian in Ian Rigby for a number of years.
“But Bryan Gray was starting off with the Football Museum and as part of that he wanted to put somebody in place to be in charge of the club’s records.
“I was actually a mature student at UCLan at the time and was approached by one of my lecturers Dave Russell.
“Dave was working with Bryan on the setting-up of the museum.
“Bryan was busy building up relationships between the university, the museum and North End.
“It led to the development of what became the Institute of Football Studies here at the university.
“But at the same time, Bryan asked Dave if he knew of anybody who was interested in becoming North End’s official statistician.
“I ended up going to Baxi’s old offices in Bamber Bridge – obviously they were the club’s sponsors at the time – with Tony and met Bryan.
“I said I would only do it if I could work with Tony because at the time, his records were much more extensive than the ones I had.”
After two decades in the job, Atherton has an impressive array of stats and can boast of having a record of every game PNE have ever played.
One particular stat the Preston supporter is glad to see the back of is the losing record in play-offs.
He rates the 4-0 Wembley victory over Swindon Town last season at Wembley as his greatest highlight watching his hometown club.
“The one stat we always used to hear about was the club’s record in the play-offs,” he said.
“We won’t hear too much about that after last season.
“I remember doing a piece on the radio before last season’s play-offs talking about our awful record.
“But even then you can put a bit of a colour to it because people don’t realise that we actually did win a play-off in 1884 – or a Test Match as they used to be called back then.”
Atherton admits it has been a dream come true to be involved with the club over the past 20 years.
“I feel a great sense of privilege and honour that I am allowed to work for my club,” said Atherton, who sits for home games in the shadow of Sir Tom’s lip in the Finney Stand. “It’s great that I get to see things from inside the club – I call it back stage.
“You get to meet former players and I never lose the thrill of that.
“One former player who is virtually at every game is Graeme Atkinson and I always liked Graeme as a player.
“Now we are on first-name terms and are friends.
“When John McGrath used to do the radio commentary with Tom Parker for Red Rose, it would be an absolute joy to sit next to them both and listen to their commentary.
“My hero is Alex Bruce and even though he’s only a few years older than me, I still get like a star-struck schoolboy whenever I meet him.”
Married to Stephanie, Atherton has two sons and two daughters – Graham, Sarah, Gillian and Daniel.
He has been a university lecturer for nearly 20 years after studying British Sign Language and Deaf Studies with History as a mature student at the age of 38.
He had previously worked as a lorry driver and a house husband.
“I am now the course leader of the subject I used to study, which is a bit weird,” said Atherton. “I got my PhD in History in 2005 and so my life has changed completely, but the constant threads throughout all of that have been family – and football.”