Former Burnley and Preston North End star Graham Alexander reminisces after finding buried treasure

"It makes me smile to be honest, it takes me back to the start," says Graham Alexander in a conversation during lockdown.

Saturday, 2nd May 2020, 12:00 pm
The image shows a nine-year-old Graham Alexander playing his first game of football for Coventry Sporting in 1981.

The former Burnley and Preston North End captain is referring to a sentimental photograph that he'd been able to excavate during a recent clean-up operation at his home.

"A lot of people joked about whether isolation had started back then," he adds when attempting to describe the image.

I can just about make out the picture in question on the ex-Scotland international's WhatsApp icon during our call.

Graham Alexander of Burnley scores his team's third goal from a penalty during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Burnley at the KC Stadium on April 10, 2010 in Hull, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

"That's it!", he exclaims. The enthusiasm in his tone signifies the glee he feels at stumbling upon such a nostalgic treasure.

A nine-year-old Alexander is captured lonesome in the rain. A long-sleeved red shirt is pulled over his hands for warmth while red shorts, blue socks and black boots, which he stuck with throughout his career, complete the look.

This is no ordinary picture from his past. This is no ordinary game of football. This was Alexander's introduction to the sport; this is where his fairytale began.

After going for trials with his friend, Gresham Hughes, the former Fleetwood Town and Scunthorpe United chief was given the opportunity to start his journey at Coventry Sporting FC.

Graham Alexander of Preston North End scores Preston's first goal from the penalty spot during the Nationwide First Division match between Preston North End and Watford at Deepdale, Preston. DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: Gary M. Prior/ALLSPORT

He recalled: "My mate [Greshan Hughes] was having a football trial when we were nine years old and he asked me if I wanted to go along with him. I went along and ended up getting picked out from a group of about 50 lads for a Sunday team.

"It was quite a good, little football club called Coventry Sporting and they had built a really good name for themselves in Coventry. They had age groups all the way through, they had their own ground and it wasn't far from my house.

"I remember the coach asking me what position I played and I'd never played for a team before so I just replied with 'defender'. I just shrugged my shoulders because I didn't have a clue, but I ended up playing as a defender for the next few years.

"I stayed with that team from nine up to being 16, but I never really affiliated with any professional football clubs. I went to Coventry City the odd time for training sessions, I went off to a number of clubs in the Midlands for trials, but I wasn't successful.

"A scout from Coventry City thought I had a little bit, but not for the level they were at, which was the top level. I wasn't ready for that level and I wouldn't have made a career there.

"He sent me for a trial at Scunthorpe, who were in the old Fourth Division and fortunately enough I got picked. That's where it all started. I ended up staying there for seven years."

With time on our hands we've all had to find ways to keep ourselves occupied during the pandemic, we've had to be a little bit more savvy with our days, and Alexander is no different.

The clean-up operation proved more productive than expected. The 48-year-old father-of-three isn't normally one for sharing any morsel of his personal life online. Alexander doesn't own any social media accounts; no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

You'd be hard-pressed to find any form of digital profile of the former defender. Aside from galleries that depict his life in a working capacity, and the vast albums that bore evidence of his playing days, Alexander doesn't really have an online presence.

However, he was more than happy to share his latest find. "It's really strange because during this period of isolation we've had a bit of a clear out in the house, the garage and the attic," he said.

"I've got boxes and boxes and boxes of football stuff and I found a picture from my first ever game for that team during a competition. I was nine years old and stood in the middle of a field.

"I showed it to somebody and they said it looked like isolation had started back then because I'm just standing on my own with my hands up my sleeves and that was the start of my football career.

"It's brilliant being able to look back at it nearly 40 years later after having a full career and becoming a manager. They were great days and there were many sliding doors moments along the way where things could have gone one way or another, but in the end you get what you put in.

"Hopefully what I've achieved has justified some of the decisions along the way."

After pinning the image to WhatsApp, he added: "I'm not on social media so I'm not one for posting anything, but that's the extent of my social media profile. That one picture!

"I found it, took a picture of it and added it as my screensaver. That was my first ever game for a football team and that's how it went.

"I don't look like I'm enjoying myself, but I am. That's how I felt for the rest of my career. Deep down, even when it all got serious as a professional, I felt like that kid just playing football.

"I loved it and that's why I played until I was 40 because I felt like that kid a lot of the time, it felt like being out on the pitch with my mates."

It wouldn't have seemed like anything at the time. Nobody on that pitch, or on the periphery, not even Alexander, could ever have imagined what kind of impression that young, lonely-looking boy, pictured back in 1981, would make on the sport's landscape.

Not only does that one picture paint a thousand words, it portrays the introduction of a career that would span more than 1,000 games. And so, from his first game at grassroots level, he would go on to make his professional bow for The Iron at Glanford Park in April 1991, coming on as a substitute for Mark Hine.

Alexander would make 149 league starts at Scunthorpe, appearing 10 times from the bench, which included the club's first ever trip to Wembley for the Fourth Division play-off final against Blackpool.

The game ended in a penalty shoot-out defeat with Alexander, who had replaced John Buckley, seeing his kick saved by Stephen McIlhargey. But it was that education, fashioned in the School of Hard Knocks, that spawned one of the most prolific penalty kick specialists of the modern era.

Alexander said: "In one of my last years at Scunthorpe we got to the play-off final at Wembley and it went to penalties. I'd come on as sub earlier in the game and I put my hand up, at 19 years old, to take a penalty.

"I'd already taken one in an FA Cup replay earlier that season and I'd scored and I was thinking 'it would be good to score at Wembley'. I stepped up and the goalkeeper saved it and I just thought 'well, that wasn't in the script'.

"At that age you don't consider the repercussions or the chance of failure, you're just confident. I was absolutely devastated, just crying my eyes out because we got beat on penalties.

"From that moment on my manager at the time, Bill Green, told me that it would make me stronger. It did! It gave me this determination to prove that I could do that job. I've always had this thing of wanting to turn a negative into a positive and show that I could overcome something."

Alexander would start to assert himself as the designated penalty taker during his time at Luton Town, where he scored 15 times in 148 league starts, but it wasn't until his move to Deepdale in 1999 when he started to establish a reputation for himself.

Having developed one of the most unique techniques in the game, which brought a 93.5% success rate from 77 spot kicks taken, he said: "When you're 19/20 you don't normally get given those responsibilities, it's normally a senior that takes hold of it so it wasn't until I was about 25/26 at Luton when I managed to get on the penalties.

"It all started from there. It wasn't until I went to Preston a year later that I started to take them regularly and it started to snowball over the years. When I'd got into 30,40, 50 penalties I started to get a bit of a reputation for myself.

"The more I took it actually got harder because there was pressure and expectation. Scoring goals and winning is the best thing in football and I always saw it as a free shot from 12 yards and I loved it.

"I wasn't always successful, I missed a few during my career, but the buzz of scoring a winner or scoring a big goal for your team was fantastic and I loved that responsibility.

"My technique wasn't that different when I first started. I was practicing a lot at Preston and I wasn't happy with how I was taking them. I just started doing them a certain way with the inside of my foot and really wrapping it into the side-netting.

"I stuck to that for quite some time, but if I went to change it I'd just leather it down the middle. Goalkeepers had started to read it a few years later so I had to come up with something a little bit different."

Alexander added: "The one that people can't get their heads around is the one that I used to slice into the opposite side. Some people used to say it was a toe punt, but give me some credit! It was a strange technique, but it was never a toe punt.

"I just thought that now and then it was good to mix it up and keep the goalkeeper guessing. I had a standard penalty which I loved to take with the inside of my right foot and really try to get it inside the post and that was my 'stock' penalty, but every now and then I had to pull out the other one.

"I remember doing a couple for Burnley in the Premier League against Hull City, both quite similar off the outside of my boot. My son was showing me them the other week and I was really happy with the second one because it went right in the top corner just three or four minutes after the first.

"It was all about practice; I'd never practice with a goalkeeper, I'd always take them into an empty net. My idea behind my penalties was that even if the keeper went the same way he still couldn't save it.

"I was never one for trying to kid the goalkeeper or give him the eyes or wait until he commits, I'd always make my mind up the day before. If I got a penalty I already knew what I was doing.

"I'd just practice them over and over again and I didn't need a goalkeeper there to tell me whether I would have scored or not.

"I knew if I got it right the keeper would never save it. My technique just came from practice. There was pressure on them, but I enjoyed it. It's nice to be remembered for something!"