Former Burnley skipper Graham Alexander feared he wouldn't get a second chance at Turf Moor

There was a time, long before his successes at Turf Moor, when Graham Alexander feared he would never play for Burnley again.

Saturday, 9th May 2020, 12:30 pm
Graham Alexander of Burnley celebrates with his team mates after scoring his team's second 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)

The ex-Clarets skipper, his own worst critic, conceded that his form hadn't been up to scratch in his first season at the club as Owen Coyle's side finished in the bottom half of the Championship.

Alexander had grown concerned for his future, Burnley's defensive record - the third worst in the division during the 2007/08 campaign - had cast doubt in his own mind.

His career could quite easily have come crumbling down around him, but the former Scotland international wasn't prepared to let that happen. Instead, he took control of his own destiny and altered his course.

El-Hadji Diouf of Blackburn battles with Graham Alexander of Burnley during the Barclays Premier League match between Burnley and Blackburn Rovers at Turf Moor on March 28, 2010 in Burnley, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

"It wasn't overnight success," he said. "It wasn't a case of a team that was getting beat every week suddenly becoming a team that was winning every week. It continued on the same path really, results hadn't improved massively.

"At the time I ended up moving to right back because Duffo got injured. I'll be honest, I didn't play particularly well that season and it was my own fault because a little bit of me was still pining to be back at Preston.

"I'm a little bit embarrassed to say it because I was 36 years old and I was mature enough to deal with that. I was my own coach when it came to the end of the season because I had to have a severe word with myself."

Alexander added: "I don't think the fans were having me at all, I think they'd seen Preston's captain come to Burnley at the age of 36 and not rip up any trees and I didn't want to leave on the back of everyone thinking I was crap!

Sunderland's Trinidad and Tobago forward Kenwyne Jones (L) vies with Burnley's Scottish defender Graham Alexander (R) during the English Premier League football match between Burnley and Sunderland at Turf Moor, Burnley, north-west England on September 19, 2009. AFP PHOTO/ANDREW YATES

"I didn't want them to think like that. I didn't feel I'd delivered what was expected of me at Burnley. I sat down and I reset my regime, my off-the-pitch programme, because I was determined to show them what I could do.

"When I look back now I think if I'd have been out of contract that summer I think Burnley would have let me go. And rightly so as well. Luckily I had another year on my contract and I was determined to make a good impression on the club."

The rest, as they so often purport, is history. But even the following season started in the same way that the previous one had ended. After a heavy defeat at Hillsborough and a botched parachute stunt in the home defeat to Ipswich Town, it took a goalless draw against nine man Crystal Palace for things to click into place.

"We started the next season pretty much the same way we'd finished the last one," Alexander recalled. "We were full of beans and to be fair to Owen he was so positive in everything that he did, but the start of the season really hit us hard.

Graham Alexander of Burnley celebrates victory with the trophy during the Coca-Cola Championship Playoff Final between Burnley and Sheffield United at Wembley Stadium on May 25, 2009 in London, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

"We were beaten 4-1 at Hillsborough on the first day of the season then we were beaten 3-0 at home to Ipswich and all of a sudden we were bottom of the table after the two games with a minus six goal difference.

"I was playing right back those first two games and I remember thinking 'where do we go from here?' Crystal Palace was the third game and Owen Coyle pulled me to one side when we were about to get on the bus from the hotel.

"I thought he was dropping me after conceding seven goals in the first two games, but he ended up telling me that he was going to play me just in front of the back four. That was it. I was just buzzing that I wasn't dropped.

"We ended up getting a 0-0 draw against nine men, but we were high-fiving each other because we'd kept a clean sheet. Our first win was Forest away and I managed to score two goals, a free kick and a penalty, and we just started edging along.

"The positivity started creeping in and it just snowballed from there. It turned into an unbelievable season. I was speaking to Steve Thompson on the phone and we were talking about that year and we both said it was the craziest year of our lives and the best because of the camaraderie and the fun we had off the pitch with the staff and the players."

Burnley inflicted 'Capital Punishment' on a number of Premier League big-hitters in the League Cup, recording the club's best run in the competition since 1983.

After beating Oldham Athletic the Clarets saw off Fulham, they beat Chelsea on penalties on a famous night at Stamford Bridge, they overcame Arsenal and went within minutes of a Wembley final in a thriller against Spurs.

Alexander said: "People forget that we got to the Carling Cup semi-final as well. We were beating Premier League teams when we were in the Championship, it was just a ridiculous season.

"If there was one season I could go back and play again it would be that one. It wouldn't be the Premier League season, even though playing in the Premier League for the first time and playing at all those grounds was amazing, but the enjoyment and the fun that we had during that promotion-winning season was something unique and unreal.

"There was a real spirit about us, we didn't use that many players because we didn't have a big squad. Training was fun, simple, but upbeat and positive. That flowed into the games.

"It was a huge shame losing out in that Carling Cup semi-final because it was a chance to play in a major cup final, but we made up for that in the league."

He continued: "Thinking back to that semi-final we had been beaten 4-1 in the first leg away from home and in everyone's eyes that was us dead. I've never been so convinced of turning things around in the second leg!

"I remember talking to some of the other players the day before the game and we knew we could beat them 3-0 at Turf Moor. It wasn't even a surprise when we beat them 3-0. "I've never felt so confident of getting a result in such a game. It was an unbelievable night and to get it snatched away from us at the end of extra-time was cruel.

"I just remember Coyley coming up to me while I was in the ice bath and saying 'come on old man, get your head up'. Straight away I was like 'come on' because we still had something massive to play for, we still had big games to come and promotion to go for."

The Clarets, to their credit, survived the heartache. They picked themselves up and went again. They would lose just twice more in 18 games in the league as they squeezed into the top six.

It was the first time Burnley had made the Championship play-offs since promotion in 2000. They finished two points short under Stan Ternent in their first season back in the second tier and were a goal shy the following term. But they hadn't been anywhere near making an impression on the leading pack since.

However, a 4-0 win against Bristol City on the final day of the 2008/09 campaign changed all that.

Alexander, who netted twice from the spot against the Robins, said: "I remember going into the last game and we had to beat Bristol City just to get into the play-offs and that was huge for the club because they'd never made it that far in the whole time they'd been in the Championship.

"That for us was a big thing. We just had a management and a staff that showed great confidence in the players, they gave us a lot of responsibility and we had some really good, experienced players that knew the game and knew how the dressing room should be run.

"They knew how you should train and we had some really exciting youngsters who showed no fear. It was a great combination."

Andre Bikey's 'episode' handed the Clarets the initiative in the first leg of the semi-final against Reading at Turf Moor. And then Martin Paterson and Steven Thompson helped the visitors capitalise on the Cameroonian's absence in the follow-up at the Madejski Stadium.

That pushed an almost out-of-contract Alexander to within one game of the Premier League, an opportunity he'd had snatched away from him so many times before.

He'd suffered Wembley defeats against Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United with Preston North End and added a semi final loss at the hands of Leeds United in 2006.

But, despite all that, he knew it would be different this time. Reflecting on the game against Sheffield United at the home of English football, he said: "I was getting confidence from the other boys. I was the eldest player, the elder statesman, but I'd been in that situation a few times with Preston and failed.

"There's nothing more devastating than losing a Championship play-off final because it hits you all season when you see who the team that beat you is playing against. I remember the lead up to that game thinking 'I'm 37, it's my seventh play-off campaign and I'd lost all my previous ones'.

"People like Blakey and Chrissy Eagles and Martin Paterson were just like 'we're going to batter Sheffield United, we've beat them twice already this season, they're not as good as us!' It was all about us so I just thought, you know what, I'm going to go with the flow.

"I ended up just letting go of myself a little bit instead of being so uptight about it. I was well aware of what was at stake, but I just loved playing with that group of lads.

"I was out of contract as well and there hadn't been any negotiations. I could have gone into the game, helped win the final and then get released. That would have been a killer, but at least I would have left showing people what I could do."

Remarkably, Alexander played all 61 games domestically that season and added five appearances for Scotland, which included an international friendly against Argentina and a World Cup qualifier against Holland.

"I just wanted everybody at Burnley to say 'he played his part'," he said. "If I'd have left 12 months before I know that wouldn't have been the case. Fortunately we won the final, got promoted and I got a new contract.

"I came off in two of those games towards the end of the season, which I was absolutely devastated about because I wanted to play in every minute of every game.

"That's what I was like as a player, but I started every single game. I remember Coyley pulling me and saying that he was thinking of resting me for one of the early cup games [against Fulham] because we had a massive game against Preston on Saturday.

"He asked me what I thought. I said: 'Gaffer, I'll never, ever say that I don't want to play a game of football'. He walked off and that was it; I played every single game. Coyley just wanted enthusiastic players that committed to the game and I had an amazing time under Owen.

"I just worked hard and did the right things to give myself the best chance of doing that. I just loved playing in that team, it was brilliant, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have played in every single game.

"I played five games for Scotland that year as well so it was 66 in total. I was a little bit tired at the end, but I couldn't wait to get back for the Premier League.

"That feel-good factor just kept us going, although it hit me in the play-off final because I cramped up after about 63 minutes and Blakey went off."

Alexander added: "What a squad that was to be a part of! Big Clarke [Carlisle] was my roommate and people like Blakey and Stevie Thompson were two of the funniest people you'll ever come across.

"We all chipped in though; Pato was a little nutcase, the aggressive one who just wanted to fight everybody all the time. It was a great group of lads and there were some frightening stories that you just wouldn't believe.

"It was all part of the spirit and the environment we had there. Stephen Jordan, who is my physio now at Salford, was a big part of that squad as well.

"There was never a day when we didn't laugh our heads off and Owen Coyle was just full of energy. That rubs off on everyone and it was a major force behind it."

Unfortunately, Alexander's first and only season in the top flight didn't go exactly to plan. The script-writers deserved an Oscar for the artistry that underpinned their opening scenes.

Alexander the Great was the protagonist when taking the captain's armband and leading the side out at the Britannia Stadium, becoming the oldest player to ever make a Premier League debut.

He then spearheaded victories over reigning champions Manchester United and Everton at a raucous Turf Moor. However, the storyline would take a turn for the worse.

Coyle, who had long been the hero, suddenly became the villain overnight as he waved 'goodbye' to fans following a 2-1 win over MK Dons in the FA Cup.

"I understood it at the time because I likened it to my decision to leave Preston to join Burnley," said Alexander. "I was devastated, I didn't want him to leave, nobody did. We loved him and loved being around it.

"I felt he was our best chance of staying in the Premier League. It was a tough year for us, we started great and punched above our weight, but we started to struggle before he left. "I felt we would maybe have had just enough to get over the line if he'd have stayed. I think, when he left, half of the belief in the squad went with him.

"That's what myself and some of the other senior players were trying to fight against because we knew how big a motivator and inspiration he was to all of us. We tried to make up for it, but it was difficult.

"There was a lot of bad blood from the supporters, which I can kind of understand. I understood at the time why he did it; I think he could have left after the play-off final to go to Celtic.

"I was really worried about that at the time because my future at Burnley lay with Owen Coyle. If he'd have left then, I was worried that I wouldn't be offered a contract under a new manager. Everyone has their professional reasons and I've never asked him about it because we all have our own decisions to make that dictate our future.

"Nobody has all the facts to hand other than the person making the decision so you have to respect that. Rather than dwelling on him leaving I was just thankful for those two years I got to play under him and really enjoy my football. It certainly hurt us."

In the end, though, regardless of the outcome, Alexander's wish to play at the highest level domestically had been granted. He played 33 times in the Premier League, scoring seven goals.

Alexander, who managed to trade shirts with Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Phil Neville, Patrick Viera and Steven Gerrard that season, said: "It was brilliant. I'd played in a lot of big games for Scotland at international level, I loved those occasions, the build up to the games, the stadiums and the atmospheres. I then had the opportunity to do that in the Premier League and I'd always wanted to experience it.

"I felt that I'd been close before and I felt that I had enough ability to play there so to finally get that opportunity was brilliant. Unfortunately Steve Caldwell got injured in pre-season and I ended up leading the team out for the majority of that season.

"I was extremely proud to do it in that first game against Stoke away and then in our first game at Turf Moor we beat Manchester United, who were the champions.

"Underneath you want to win and you want to be successful, but I wasn't expecting to be playing in the Premier League at 37 and scoring in the Premier League and captaining a team in the Premier League.

"I feel incredibly fortunate that it happened to me at that stage of my career, though I do regret not getting there before and having more years at that level.

"Everything happens for a reason! I played at some of the big, iconic grounds and picked up some memorable results along the way. Unfortunately we didn't have quite enough at the end, but getting there in the first place was like winning the lottery for us at the time."