VIDEO: Grezza’s fire still burning inside

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IT puts things into perspective in the week that Sky Sports celebrates 20 years, sitting down with Graham Alexander to talk about his life and times in the game.

To some people, Sky Sports has been great for football, and for others, the root cause of all that is wrong.

Graham Alexander and his team mates celebrate Burnley's third goal.''PHOTO BY ANDREW SMITH

Graham Alexander and his team mates celebrate Burnley's third goal.''PHOTO BY ANDREW SMITH

Millions pumped into the game have brought some of the best players in the world to these shores, but a by-product of that money has been the creation of a culture of wealth, and all the trappings.

Alexander, however, has never been motivated by fame and fortune.

Having passed 1,000 senior career games on Saturday, he still has an almost child-like love for football that burns bright at the age of 39.

Playing has not been about accruing money, flash cars or bling dripping off his wrist, but the sheer enjoyment of it, day after day, rain or shine.

Preston North End v Luton'Captain Graham Alexander celebrates his 100th career goal

Preston North End v Luton'Captain Graham Alexander celebrates his 100th career goal

Owen Coyle often remarked that if he wasn’t in the professional game, he would be queueing up to pay his fiver to play five-a-side with his mates.

Alexander is cut from the same cloth - don’t be surprised to come up against him in the years to come in Sunday league action!

For now though, he is intent on continuing to work hard day in, day out, and see how far he can take his remarkable career.

His dream was purely to become a professional footballer, and the rest - his incredible milestone, the honour of representing his country, a title win, Wembley glory and tasting Premier League football - has all been a bonus.

He was almost overlooked, growing up in Coventry, and his boyhood idols thought better of signing him, as he explained: “I had loads of trials all over the place in the Midlands in my last year at school but I never got taken on.

“I trained with Coventry a couple of times but the chief scout at Coventry, a fellow called Bert Edwards, thought I was a late developer and recommended me to Scunthorpe at the time.

“I went up there for a trial, played a game and came home and got a phonecall a couple of weeks later offering me a place as an apprentice.

“It was amazing.

“I’d thought about what I was going to do after leaving school because I’d been to a few trials and sort of lost a little bit of heart. But then I went up to Scunthorpe and the youth team manager at the time, Richard Money, saw something in me and offered me a chance and changed my life.”

He had little thought for what he might have done, had nothing come of his chance with the Iron: “Like any 16-year-old, once you want to do one thing it’s either that or nothing.

“I was incredibly fortunate to do that.

“I’d probably have gone into manual work; maybe have been a lorry driver like my dad and play non-league football locally.

“But I was lucky enough to get taken on.”

He feels fortunate to have seen both sides of the coin, growing up in football in an era where apprentices cleaned first team players’ boots, swept the stands and did odd jobs around the club, while also seeing the influx of sports science and modern thinking in terms of training and diet.

Ahead of his first game, for Scunthorpe in the Sherpa Van Trophy against Halifax on December 6th 1988, he was doing chores in the club shop when he got the call.

Times were different on and off the pitch: “We had a little bit of freedom back then. I wouldn’t say it was non-professional but you’d train hard and then go out and have a laugh. But you had to train hard to keep fit because you abused yourself really, but it was a great life because everyone was doing it. It was the accepted thing and we didn’t know any other way.

“I’ve seen both sides.

“I’ve been fortunate to have 10 years of that and 10 years after, and there are pros and cons to both.

“There are players that played in the 50s and 60s that obviously haven’t got the financial rewards that players have now, but they probably wouldn’t change their time either because they had a great time. If you’ve been fortunate to have 20 years in professional football, whatever era it was, then you’ve been a very lucky man.”

And when his professional career is over, you won’t have seen the last of him on the pitch:

“I’m happiest when I’m on the football pitch, it’s where I feel at home, so as many times you can get out there and whatever you can do to be out there, you’re going to do it.

“I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to do that.

“There are loads of players who would love to play as long as they possibly can into their 50s and 60s because you love the game, but there is a time when it comes and hits you and no-one will pick you anymore.

“I’ve had a great time.

“I know when I’ve finished playing professionally I’d love to carry on playing in some capacity.

“I’d be happy enough playing Sunday League. I really would. Just being part of a team and having a laugh in the changing rooms then going out and trying to win a game of football. It’s been the same since I was 10 years old right up to 39.”

Alexander married his childhood sweetheart Karen, and cites her as a big inspiration, as well as the managers, players and staff who helped along the way.

But you have to have the raw materials within yourself, and he maintains the desire to play: “You have to have a strong mentality and you have to have support behind you. I’ve been lucky enough that my wife’s always believed in me. She’s been with me since 16 when I first started playing football, and I want to make my kids proud of me, playing football. It’s just little things like that; anything you can add to yourself to keep yourself pushing and keep the fire burning. You have to have that fire in your belly to keep going.”

He could have a decision to make in the close season, however, weighing up whether to blur the lines between player and coach.

He is halfway through his UEFA pro licence, and, as he says, “getting ready for when the day comes.”

He said: “I’ve got an option in my contract to stay here in some capacity, but I need to speak to the manager at the end of the season to see what that entails. That’s part of the decision I’ve got to make, if that’s enough for me, if it’s worth giving up playing, or not. I’ll box that off until the end of the season and concentrate on helping the team win games.”