The Big Interview - Sean St Ledger

When I meet Preston North End's Sean St Ledger in a quiet corner of the lounge at North End's training ground, it is difficult to imagine this was the same fresh-faced, cantankerous, youth whose volcanic bust-up with then Peterborough manager Steve Bleasdale in the television show 'Big Ron Manager', almost sparked a dressing room revolution.

The fly-on-the-wall series shocked football fans with the intensity of the rows, bust-ups and confrontations including a mass brawl after, a vital promotion defeat.

That was three years ago, and St Ledger, now established as one of the most accomplished defenders in the Championship, admits he is a changed man.

"I've had to change massively since then, I've matured a lot since the 'Big Ron Manager' thing," said St Ledger.

"I didn't come out of it too well, but I've grown up, become more professional.

"The programme damaged me a lot because people had this view about me because of it.

"That was probably my own fault, though.

"Some of the things I said and did weren't right.

"If I'd been watching myself doing that on television, I'd have thought 'He's a right plonker that guy'.

"There were certain things that went on that people didn't see. It made some people look good, some look bad.

"But I'm not going to deny that some of the things I did were completely wrong."

The series was football pantomine.

In one episode, chairman Barry Fry intervened to tell St Ledger he would be playing after he was axed by Bleasdale, who clashed so much with Ron Atkinson he quit in front of his stunned players an hour before a match.

"I didn't see eye to eye with Steve Bleasdale, and I suppose that came across in the programme.

"We didn't get on, even before the cameras arrived and he was Mark Wright's No.2.

"We didn't like each other, but I should have shown him more respect. You don't get on with everybody in life.

"But he was my boss and I didn't show him that respect.

"That's one of the things I've had to learn. You have to show the manager respect, whether he picks you or leaves you on the bench.

"I hope it works out for Steve because is a good coach, very motivated.

"I wasn't happy at that time in my football life, though.

"I haven't really got an excuse, but maybe that's a little one.

"Maybe I've changed some people's perceptions of me since, but Paul Simpson was the guy who took a chance on a young defender from League Two.

"It was a bit of a gamble for Paul because the programme had not done me any favours.

"But he took that gamble and here I am.

"I've had to take what happened on the chin, try to show everybody I'm a good character, not the bad lad in 'Big Ron Manager'."

He has certainly achieved that at Deepdale and much more in just less than two-and-a-half years since he joined from Peterborough United in a 225,000 deal. It looks like money well spent now with St Ledger ready to celebrate his 100th appearance for the Lilywhites at Blackpool tomorrow.

Last year he swept the board at Preston's player of the season awards, winning seven prizes, recognition of another outstanding campaign.

Indeed, many avid Deepdale watchers see St Ledger as a future Preston captain.

It is hard to believe anybody could be miserable in his company.

He seems to genuinely enjoy the interview, and for this modest, self-effacing young man, Preston North End is his life.

Comfortable at full-back or centre-half, the 23-year-old has quickly become a firm favourite at Deepdale.

"I'm the type of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, and I think that pride I have for Preston comes out on the pitch.

"Maybe the programme has had a part to play in that because perhaps I had to prove myself more when I came to Preston.

"But the fans have been really good to me. Sometimes you strike up a rapport with supporters. I'm not sure why that has happened at Preston. Maybe that's a question for the fans.

"Every time I pull on that Preston shirt shirt, I give my all.

"I just want to carry on playing for Preston."

St Ledger recently underlined his commitment to North End, signing a four-year deal, and admits the influence of Alan Irvine was a major factor.

"I wouldn't have signed if I didn't believe Preston could get to the Premier League under Alan Irvine," he said. "I learned a lot from him and I feel if he stays here so do I.

"He has brought a total professionalism to the club.

"He is very astute tactically, and training is high-intensity, the gaffer has the ability to get things over very well.

"When he first came in a year ago we didn't win too many games, and we'd struggled before that.

"But Alan needed precious time to change the style of play, get his ideas across and re-educate us.He gave us our belief back and belief is everything in football.

"It is incredible how the confidence pours through you when you win a couple of matches.

"When we won at Ipswich Town on the opening day we were bombing along, then we lost a few in October and it was hard to get out of that rut for some reason.

"It is a terribly frustrating experience, hard to deal with sometimes.

"Usually somebody close to you gets the brunt of things when the results don't come. The 3-2 defeat to Southampton was agony, but that's when you have to be mentally strong and you find out about yourself.

"You have come back from a setback like that, like people do in life."

But while football was always the plan, like many a promising schoolboy he found that more than talent was required to succeed as a professional.

"I signed youth forms with Peterborough when I was nine, but by the time I was 14 I honestly thought I wouldn't make it.

"I was dropped down to the age below because they said I was too small.

"That put me down a bit, knocked my confidence, and deep down I thought they'd let me go.

"So when they offered me a contract I couldn't believe it.

"Dad comes to see every game I play – he was even down at Plymouth last month.

"We didn't have a lot of money as a family and I owe him an awful lot."

St Ledger was 18 when he made his league debut for Peterborough against Wycombe.

"The centre-back came off injured after 25 minutes and the manager, Barry Fry, just said, 'You're on son'," he recalls.

"I was so nervous I forgot my shin pads.

"I didn't do too bad, though, and I hope I've made my dad proud since.

"Barry was a great motivator, fantastic fun, but he was always trying to flog me because Peterborough were so skint."

Born in Birmingham, St Ledger suppported Aston Villa and still does.

He says those early days coloured his life.

"I never contemplated doing anything else," he said.

"Like most lads I wanted to be a professional footballer.

"My mum and dad have got a photograph of me as a three-year-old, wearing some funny little shorts and a hat, kicking a ball on the beach.

"We lived in an upstairs maisonette in Birmingham and I suppose it wasn't the nicest of areas.

"But any spare moment I'd be out there in the playground, having a kickabout.

"Dad would take me to watch the Villa play and we'd never miss.

"It was a religion for me and we had a season ticket on the Holte End.

"I was right behind the net when Ronny Rosenthal missed that amazing open goal, hitting the bar instead.

"Dean Saunders made his Villa debut that day and scored twice against Liverpool.

"We'd even go away sometimes, Highbury, Old Trafford or Anfield.

"Paul McGrath was my hero, especially as he played for Ireland.

"He had such style and panache, McGrath was so cultured on the ball.

"He read the game brilliantly, and always seemed to have so much more time than other players.

"I read his autobiography and some of the drinking stories were outrageous.

"Sometimes he'd never train, but then he'd turn up on a Saturday and play the game of his life."

He smiles when I ask him how he escapes from the pressures of the game.

"It is a bit girly but I like doing a bit of shopping and I'm always off to Manchester on shopping trips.

"I like my clothes and I'm a big music fan, especially rythmn and blues. I'm going to see Kanye West soon, and I've just started taking piano lessons. This song by Justin Timberlake got inside my head so I wanted to play it on the piano.

"I've no girlfriend so it can get a bit lonely sometimes because my folks are in Birmingham and a lot of the lads have wives and girlfriends.

"But playing football for a living is an incredible honour and I'll never lose sight of that.

"It all seems an awfully long way from my schooldays school at Stechford when I dreamt about becoming a footballer.

"The strange thing is that I had the chance to join Birmingham when Peterborough decided to sell me, but it would never have felt right.

"I never doubted that I made the right decision coming to Preston. I've got another dream now, and that's to play in the Premier League with Preston.

"Whether I'm good enough to fulfil those aspirations only time well tell, but I'm here for the long haul.

"The other day the gaffer pointed out that we had a point less than Hull City at the same stage last season, and look at them now.

"In football you never know do you and that's the beauty of the game."

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