Graham Alexander: Motherwell boss opens up on Scotland, career in lower leagues, upbringing and those hairstyles

When Graham Alexander scatters his mother’s ashes today, he will be thinking of the woman who was his quiet strength and inspiration.
On the touchline as Motherwell's managerOn the touchline as Motherwell's manager
On the touchline as Motherwell's manager

“Mum had a brilliant mentality, I loved the way she looked at life,” explains the Motherwell manager. “‘Just be happy, son,’ she would always say. She said it when I won my first Scotland cap. And when she saw me smile, or my sister or brother smile, that was enough for her.”

But the simplicity of the philosophy was deceptive. “She had tough times in her life, right from an early age. She had a lot of illness, school was difficult and then this Irish Catholic from Dublin married my dad, a Scottish Protestant from Glasgow – that was a bold thing to do in Coventry in the 1960s. I didn’t really know any of this until later. Mum never moaned. Stuff happened and she got on with it. I think I do the same. And I reckon I get that from her.”

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Alexander’s mother Joan died in March, just a few weeks into his Fir Park tenure. “It was very sudden. I raced down the road but missed her by 20 minutes.” The lifting of pandemic restrictions and the international break will enable the family to be together to mourn and to celebrate her life. And maybe share some laughs, for this is what Alexander is doing right now at just gone 8am at the Steelmen’s stadium, as he remembers an incident from his tearaway youth.

Alexander in action for Scotland against North Macedonia in 2009, the last of his 40 capsAlexander in action for Scotland against North Macedonia in 2009, the last of his 40 caps
Alexander in action for Scotland against North Macedonia in 2009, the last of his 40 caps

“I was never at school,” he admits. “Dad sent me to a different secondary from my mates – he wanted me to crack on with my education. But I was always getting into bother. We lived in an area where there was no money, a lot of unemployment. Was I in a gang? Well, wasn’t every lad?

“So I wagged it, didn’t turn up for lessons. A letter came to the house. I didn’t know it was from the school but the look on Dad’s face quickly told me. I scarpered, waited at the road end for Mum to finish work. She didn’t condone me playing truant but she understood. I mean, it was a rugby school – they didn’t have a football team!”

Scunthorpe United, Luton Town, Preston North End, Burnley. Unglamorous clubs but oh what service Alexander gave them over 1,024 competitive games, mostly at full-back. His old headmaster would have had to acknowledge: this was a footballer. In recognition of his thousandth appearance, team-mates presented him with a photo-montage of all his hairstyles down the seasons: “There was everything: long, skinhead, flick, curtains, blond. At Burnley the hair was really long because [manager] Owen Coyle was very superstitious and when we went on a good run he wouldn’t let me get it cut. The moment came when I knew I was going to have to play with an Alice band. It had been in my pocket for a while. Honestly, I got annihilated. You don’t see too many of them around the town.”

Alexander, 50 next month, is sensibly shorn now. Listening to his remarkable story, Motherwell would appear to have themselves a determined character who doesn’t give up, has ridden out rejections and sackings, and keeps coming back for more. “Football is like a boxing match in that you go in there knowing you’ll be hit, so the challenge is to take the blows as best you can and get through to the end. And isn’t that life as well?”

Leading the celebrations at Burnley after scoring with yet another penaltyLeading the celebrations at Burnley after scoring with yet another penalty
Leading the celebrations at Burnley after scoring with yet another penalty

An example of successfully overcoming setbacks, just like his dear old mum, would be penalty-kicks. “I missed one for Scunthorpe at Wembley aged 19 [1992, old Fourth Division playoff final]. We lost and I felt so guilty. I was in tears on the pitch. But I decided there and then: I’m not running away from penalties now – I’ve got to take them.” He would become the man from 12 yards at all his future clubs and nearly always scored.

Another example is Scotland. Alexander was capped 40 times, playing his part in downing France twice, our most stirring victories this century, but his start under Berti Vogts was tricky.

“Playing for Scotland was a big thrill for me – it had been my dream from when I was a kid – and I treated every game like the World Cup final. That was difficult when the results weren’t great, and particularly that time in the Faroes.” This was the 2002 Euros qualifier where on a godforsaken hilltop all we could do against a bobble-hatted goalie was scrap a 2-2 draw. “The ground only had two stands. It made me nostalgic for the Fourth Division and places like Northampton, open next to a cricket ground, where if the ball was booted some poor seven-year-old would have to scamper after it. But obviously the result wasn’t good. We had to take a ferry to the island where the game was played and on the ride back the media were clustered round Berti. The only way he could have escaped was if he’d jumped overboard. I thought: ‘This is serious.’

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“I liked Berti but he was under constant pressure after all the successful campaigns previously. He rebuilt with young guys but also tried someone like me. I got a hard time from the media as well. After all, I was 30 years old, English-born with a Coventry accent, and at that point had never played top-level football. There was a lot of stuff like: ‘Surely there has to be someone who’s genuinely Scottish and better than this bloke?’ That was pretty much the gist of what some fans were shouting at me during the match. You could hear everything that day, just like at Darlington and Scarborough.”

Sporting one of his many different haircuts, this from his Preston daysSporting one of his many different haircuts, this from his Preston days
Sporting one of his many different haircuts, this from his Preston days

Did he think about quitting the international scene, saving himself all the hassle? “Not at all. I would have been cheating myself, all my managers and coaches in my career until that moment – and most important my family and my upbringing.

“I wasn’t self-conscious about my background, my accent or anything when I played for Scotland – indeed I’d have felt more awkward being in the England team. Growing up, when everyone in our street and in the playground was English, I loved being different. Dad took me to England-Scotland games and there was no doubt who my country were.”

The West Midlands tones fooled David Moyes, Alexander’s manager at Preston. “He didn’t know about the Glasgow connection, my father hailing from Townhead – Toonheid to him – and ending up in Coventry where his father had come looking for work. Moyesy said: ‘We’ll have to get you into that Scotland team, then.’ ‘Yeah, gaffer, that would be great,’ I said, not thinking for a minute it would ever happen.

“When it did the SFA wanted my birth certificate to check if Dad really was Scottish. ‘Haven’t seen it for years, son,’ he said when I phoned home, ‘what do you need it for?’ When I told him, I was sure he was going to run all the way up to Glasgow to present it.”

Alexander’s father, Andy, is thrilled his son’s search for a manager’s post has brought him north and is contemplating joining him. A retired long-distance lorry driver, he’s seen Alexander’s younger brother Craig follow him onto the trucks and our man has fond memories of going along for the ride across the continent during the summer holidays. “Dad would say: ‘How do you fancy Italy? Then grab some spare pants.’ Sat up high crossing the Alps seemed glamorous and macho and far more exciting than being stuck in an office with a boss over your shoulder. Who knows, I might have become a trucker. Maybe if this job doesn’t work out I will. There’s a need for drivers right now, isn’t there?”

Alexander’s entry into football offers yet more evidence of his refusal to be beaten and, like Jamie Vardy’s journey from obscurity, can be an inspiration to any kid shut out of the academies and performance schools. “I had to fight to become a footballer. I wasn’t affiliated to any professional club so wrote letters asking for trials. Coventry, Villa, Birmingham, West Brom, Wolves, Leicester, even Walsall. Most of them didn’t get back to me but I think my name must have been passed on to Scunthorpe. ‘Where’s that?’ I asked Dad. Being a lorry-driver he knew.”

Because he played until he was 40 I’m assuming Alexander was a model pro, body as his temple, and maybe a pasta pioneer to boot. He laughs. “At first I was like every other player. There wasn’t much sports science going around and training was running, more running and if there was any time left we’d do a little bit extra running. We’d have a good drink after games having gone out during the week as well.” But he wouldn’t have been last man standing at the bar or anything? “Well, I usually was! I pushed it too far with some managers and got into bother. I was young at Scunthorpe – and stupid.

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“By the time I got to Preston football was changing with the foreign managers bringing good habits with them. Age was creeping up on me but, having reached a good level, I didn’t want to go back to the lower leagues. I have to give credit to Moyesy for moulding my personality into becoming a better pro. He really pushed me, always wanting more. And that was the only way to survive and stay in his team.”

Dad-of-three Alexander splits his Scotland experience into two parts. The 2002 debut was against Nigeria and if that had been his only cap, his dad making the long trip to Aberdeen to be at the friendly, he would have been content – but the first part was largely forgettable. “There was a year when I didn’t play. I was suffering the double whammy of not getting on the pitch for Scotland then being left out by my club for having been away for ten days. I was no spring chicken and needed to be playing to get the next contract. But then Walter Smith took over from Berti and when he brought me back I think his credibility helped my credibility.”

Part two began in 2005 against Moldova at Hampden in a World Cup qualifier – the challenge facing the current team tonight – and James McFadden and Christian Dailly scored in a 2-0 win. Two months later he was in Vienna, the destination for Steve Clarke’s men next Tuesday. “I was older and logical and so understood there might be some resistance [to me playing for Scotland]. But I never thought I shouldn’t be there and always just tried to do my best for the team. Alex [McLeish] and George [Burley] picked me and if I hadn’t got injured Craig [Levein] might have done as well.”

A special night was the Hampden win over France, Alexander’s 25th cap, commemorative silver medal to go with the victory in the Euros qualifier, his wife Karen, dad and grandad in the stand, an entire restaurant applauding him, the old man blubbing. “I swapped shirts with Thierry Henry. Probably he used mine to clean his boots, if he ever performed such duties. For the return match France didn’t want to exchange. Too sore, I think.” On the wall of the Fir Park lounge there’s a painting depicting McFadden’s winner in that game. “The artist has concentrated on Faddy and Stephen Pearson, the two Motherwell boys.” A broader canvas and the future manager would have been included. If Alexander achieves success here, the work should definitely be recommissioned.

Who could have predicted he’d turn up at Motherwell? Maybe not many, but then as a boss he never anticipated the dismissals at Fleetwood Town, Scunthorpe and Salford City, the latter being the pet project of Manchester United’s Class of 92 including Ryan Giggs, a fellow member of the exclusive 1,000 games club. In each case Alexander seems to have been unlucky, a victim of boardroom impatience, which doesn’t appear a good look for the Old Trafford elite, given the forbearance once afforded their starmaker, Sir Alex Ferguson.

His mother was particularly upset by that sacking although you get the feeling she would find Motherwell, a salt-of-the-earth club with far more heritage, very much to her liking. “I almost had to defend football to her, saying this is the game, sometimes it can be harsh, but not to worry about me because I’ll be fine. You see, football has never gotten rid of me very easily.”

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