By Chris Dunlavy
Graham Alexander may have played in the Premier League. But anyone worried the new Salford City boss is too big time for the National League need only look on his driveway.
“I’ve still got my old VW camper van,” laughs the 46-year-old, who took over at Moor Lane at the end of May.
“And I still use it. I was actually out in it about three days ago, just for a little drive through the countryside. I love it. You sit in this vintage camper van in the middle of nowhere and you’re about as far from modern life as it’s possible to be. It takes you away from everything.
“It started at Preston when me and a couple of the other lads – Paul McKenna and Richard Cresswell – bought camper vans.
“We all had young families at the time and we’d go off to the Lake District or down to Cornwall for the week. It was an absolutely brilliant laugh.
“My kids are too old for all that now but back then it was magical for them – they still talk about those holidays more than any others.
“Mind you, the younger lads used to laugh. They’d be off to Dubai or somewhere and we’d be camping outside Keswick in a pair of shorts and flip flops! But we just wanted to be normal lads, really.”
Normal, ‘Grezza’ certainly is, though his playing career was anything but. The Lancastrian is one of just two outfield players to make over 1,000 professional appearances and at 37 still holds the record for the oldest Premier League debutant. He also won 40 caps for Scotland.
For a top-flight player, lower league management can often be a struggle. Players in the fifth tier, after all, invariably lack the consistency present at the highest levels.
“I get that,” admits Alexander, who made over 150 appearances for each of Scunthorpe, Luton, Preston and Burnley.
“But for one thing, I’d never consider myself a Premier League player. I had one season there when I was 37. Realistically, I was a Championship player.
“For another, I’ve got a long memory. I don’t look back at my career with rose-tinted glasses and pretend I had this God-given ability.
“I remember slogging my guts out in Division Four. I was 29 before I got out of the bottom two divisions and I wasn’t that great for a lot of that time.
“So instead of getting frustrated at somebody’s deficiencies, I think ‘That was me when I was 22 or 23’. I needed an opportunity. I needed a coach to put the work in with me. I needed a lot of help to reach the top.”
Nobody was more instrumental than David Moyes. The former Everton and Manchester United manager started his career at Preston and took a special interest in Alexander, who he felt was treading water.
“And he was right,” he admits. “David changed my outlook, changed what I thought it meant to be a professional. He re-lit a fire that had probably dimmed since the start of my career.
“He made it tough for me, as he did for all the players. But not tough in a bad way. He just expected better from you. He challenged you to fulfil what you could be as a player and didn’t accept anything less.
“What David did was maximise you as player and that’s how I see my job now really. Sometimes that means being tough. Sometimes it means being kind. But whatever the method, it’s about making sure people don’t let themselves down.”
When it comes to feeling let down, Alexander can justly feel aggrieved by his sacking at Scunthorpe in March.
Marooned in the bottom half of League One when he arrived in 2016, the Iron finished third in 2016-17 and – despite a nine-game winless run – were once again ensconced in the top six when the axe fell.
“If we’d got to the end of the season and didn’t make the play-offs, I could understand,” says Alexander, who also won promotion from League Two as manager of Fleetwood in 2014.
“I think we’d have made it and I felt my record there warranted a bit of patience. But I’m not the first manager to feel hard done by when he leaves a club and I won’t be the last.
“When I look back and take the emotion out of things, I know I did a good job. I know I left the club in a better place.
“That’s all you can really do as a manager in the modern game. You go in, work as hard as you can and hope for the best.
“Trying to plan a career path in this business is virtually impossible now. In years gone by, people were happy with steady progress, the odd bad year. Now it’s success or nothing.”
Still, Scunthorpe’s loss is Salford’s gain, with co-owner Gary Neville admitting that he overlooked pal and fellow stakeholder Paul Scholes to let Alexander head the Ammies’ first season in the National League.
Neville it was who conducted the job interview, and Grezza used the opportunity to remind him of a previous meeting.
“It was Burnley’s first home game in the Premier League and we beat Manchester United 1-0,” he recalls. “They were the reigning champions. Me and Ryan (Giggs) were captains that day. Later on in the season it was me and Gary.
“I did have a bit of a joke with Nev about it but, to be honest, I doubt he even remembers. It’s not like they didn’t have bigger games to worry about!”
Now, though, the pair are on the same side – and plotting a path straight into the EFL.
“We’re taking nothing for granted,” insists Alexander, who this week snatched striker Devante Rodney from rivals Hartlepool.
“We’re up against a lot of big clubs with a lot of experience in this division. But if we get our recruitment right, get the attitude right, why not? Our ambition is to win things.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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