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Play-off final is not about me, says ex-Claret Alexander

Graham Alexander

Graham Alexander

First published in Sport

FLEETWOOD...Famous for being the birthplace of English tenor Alfie Boe, Fisherman’s Friends and the Freeport Fleetwood Outlet Village. Now Graham Alexander wants to put the seaside town on the map for football.

It is five years since he last went to Wembley, where he won the Championship play-off final with Burnley and a place in the Premier League.

Tomorrow, he will end his first season in management with the Cod Army playing for a place in League One against Burton Albion.

But while ex-Claret and former Preston stalwart Alexander has plenty of experience in these promotion lotteries – four in total – both good and bad considering North End’s play-off curse, he has no intention of bombarding his players with it.

“I played in a play-off final when I was 19 and when I was 36 or 37 and each one was approached in a different way,” he said.

“I don’t think the first one was as big media-wise because it was 1992 or whatever. But they have built up each year and especially the Championship ones because of the prize of the Premier League the following year.

“The last three were from the age of 30 onwards and that’s when you start thinking a bit more about the football and preparation, how I wanted to feel and how I did feel going into those games, and which ones I felt better in.

“But I can only draw on my experience and how I was as a person. There are a lot of different personalities in that squad so what might have been right for me back then might not be right for Antoni Sarcevic or Steven Schumacher.

“I never talk about my playing career because that’s gone and irrelevant to these players. I won’t say, ‘We did this in 2009 or 2001 we did that’. It’s not about that.”

Alexander was keen, though, to take elements of his experiences.

The one he found especially beneficial, visiting an empty Wembley and walking out on to the pitch on the eve of Burnley’s play-off final showdown with Sheffield United, was not an option because the stadium is in lockdown after the Championship and League One finals.

But with Fleetwood facing the prospect of a sixth promotion in 10 years, with only the Brewers now standing in their way, Alexander is wary of straying too far from their normal pre-match routine anyway.

“There is no surefire way of being successful however you prepare, but I think it’s about preparing the same as you have done over the course of the season,” he said.

If you change too much players might change how they go into a game to play and we don’t want them to change.

“We want them to play how they have been playing this season and if they do that we give ourselves the best chance.

“We speak to a couple of the senior players about how they feel they should prepare and what they want to do as a squad because it’s important they play a part in that.

“There are certain things where I have said that’s definitely not to going to happen and that’s not right and that’s how we do it.”

No champagne corks were popped, for example, after the full-time whistle of their semi-final win over York City.

“It was a great feeling, don’t get me wrong, to win that game but there was nothing to celebrate because Wembley wasn’t our achievement or our goal. Promotion is and we haven’t achieved that yet,” said Alexander.

“When the time is right I will celebrate but the time has got to be right. I didn’t think after a semi-final was the right time.

“I know the ups and downs of football. I have been through them all and if you get ahead of yourself before you’ve had a real achievement you can come crashing down really quickly so it’s about keeping the lads’ feet on the ground.

“And to be fair they weren’t full of it when they came in the changing room straight after the game. I could hear the voices saying ‘we haven’t done anything yet’ and that was before I’d even spoken and that pleased me more than anything, that they were focused straight after the game on the next step.

“That for me was a great thrill for me because it meant they had kept that focus after the game. But they have to keep it going into the game as well.”

There are a few more grey hairs on the scalp and the chin since Alexander hung up his boots at the age of 40. Not many more, but it’s an occupational hazard.

The former Scotland international, now 42, spent more than two decades just looking after his own career interests. He was with Burnley when he became only the second outfield player after Tony Ford, his old Scunthorpe United team-mate, to reach 1,000 senior games.

These days the responsibilities have multiplied.

“We played the (semi-final) game last Friday night and I had a meeting at eight o’clock on Saturday morning preparing for this game.

“I definitely wouldn’t have been doing that as a player. I would have been in my bed!” he laughed.

“That’s how it is different but it’s something I have built up over the course of the season in preparing your team and your squad.

“Obviously there have been extra responsibilities this week in organising logistics and so forth and organising everything that best suits the players to get them in the best possible mental state for Monday.”

The list of things to do is endless.

“Training pitches, coaches, things to do when we are down there.

“We are going down a day earlier than we normally would just in case there are any problems on Sunday because we have had a couple of mishaps this season with the amount of miles do from here.

“We have had a couple of journeys of 12 hours down to Exeter and so forth so we want to take that out of the equation by going down the day before. But we don’t want the lads just thinking about the game so we try and think of things to occupy them. All that sort of stuff. “And there are the family tickets to get boxed off.

“We have tried to a put a ring of focus around the players and try and get things sorted out as quickly as possible, like tickets, so that as the week goes on we need to focus on the game.

“We want the players to enjoy the build-up as well. The media attention is a lot bigger than we are used to in League Two so it’s about embracing that as well, not hiding away from it but not letting it overcome your preparation for the game.”

Naturally, given his personal prowess from the spot, there is a plan for penalties if it goes all the way to a shoot-out.

“Yes, we're prepared. We did that for the semis as well, so we'll do the same again and practice them,” said Alexander.

“You don't want to leave any stone unturned as you don't want to regret anything. There are no guarantees but I always think it's worth practising.

“It's similar to the game, it's just trying to give little pointers on what's important. It's a unique scenario and it's different for each individual as well. But I don't go along with the notion that you can't practice them. You can practice technique and if you get that right, it gives you an extra percentage on the way to being successful.

“People say I was an expert at taking penalties but I missed them, and I missed a couple in big games as well,” he added, no doubt with a flashback to the spot-kick he missed for Scunthorpe against Blackpool in the old Fourth Division play-off final at Wembley in 1992. It was his first penalty in senior football, and The Iron lost the shoot-out.

“You have to go through bad times as a footballer - if you don't put yourself on that spot and fail, you won't succeed either.

“I practiced penalties all the time. My technique was something that just came over time because I took that many one way, I had to adapt and come up with a couple of different options.

“It's all part of the game. It's like centre halves practising headers and if you try not to see it as something different or alien, you're better at it.

“The first day I walked in the door the goalkeepers wanted me to take penalties and I did for a laugh, but I've stepped down now.

“My playing days are gone and they're irrelevant to the players now. It's about these players making their memories and careers.”

Diplomatically, Alexander is not giving his play-off highlights a pecking order, even if Fleetwood is added to the list on Monday.

“It's the next one. I don't look at my past. Don't get me wrong, promotions with Preston and Burnley were fantastic and success brings relationships with the fans. But this is the next one for me.

“You can't split them, it's just about winning and that's all we're trying to focus on.”

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