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The Big Interview: Graeme Atkinson (LEP)

Graeme Atkinson, great memories of Deepdale

Published Date: 12 December 2008
By Tony Dewhurst

A lot happened to Graeme Atkinson in three action-packed years at Preston North End.
The Yorkshireman scored on his Preston debut (a cracker of a contest at Hartlepool), savoured the joy of a vintage title-winning campaign a year later, and then saw Deepdale’s door slam shut, perhaps sooner than the lion-hearted midfielder had anticipated.

“The memory of 1995-96, when Preston won the old Third Division Championship is something I will always cherish,” said Atkinson.

“It was a glorious time in my life, my happiest in football.

“I felt very privileged to be part of that team, and to play 42 games that season still makes me immensely proud.

“I could pick nine or 10 games, the 6-0 win against Mansfield, Steve Wilkinson and Andy Saville both scoring hat-tricks.

“A win 4-0 at Torquay early on and then a 5-0 thrashing of Cardiff on New Year’s Day.

“We had the fans on the edge of their seats, and we scored goals galore.

“It was a fierce battle with Gillingham for the title, but we were the flair team, scoring 78 goals, the most in that division.

“Saville and Wilkinson just hit it off, their style of play complemented each other beautifully.

“Andy Saville was tall and lean, a predator. Steve was a ratter, dropping back into midfield and linking-up play.

“Sav scored 30 goals and they shared 41 between them, a phenomenal effort.

“We were hugely competitive, enjoyed a great team bond and got on as a group of people.

“That can be quite rare in the game, you know, finding a blend of balance and camaraderie.

“Simon Davey, Lee Cartwright and Ian Bryson gave the team a great balance, and a lot of the lads were at their peak.”

For all his reputation as a stern and implacable opponent on the football field, Graeme Atkinson is a friendly man and that Deepdale era means so much to him.

He said: “It still gives me great satisfaction thinking about those nine months, lifting the league trophy in front of 19,000 fans against Exeter at Deepdale with that medal hung from my neck.”

Atkinson was one of John Beck’s final Deepdale signings in October, 1994, joining from his home-town club, Hull City.

“I was apprehensive at first because Hull were playing in a division higher and I didn’t know what to expect,” he says.

“I knew all about Preston’s famous tradition, the fanbase, the great names of the past.

“But I was immediately struck by the friendliness at Preston, and John Beck sold PNE to me.

“John was very impressive, he got the fans believing again and created the momentum for Preston to progress rapidly after so many years in the doldrums.

“He sat me down and laid out the plans for the new stadium and what the owners Baxi were trying to achieve and I just wanted to sign.

“The day after, John asked me to go into the supporters’ shop on Lowthorpe Road to sign a few autographs and meet the fans.

“I got there and I was mobbed by supporters, with a trumpeter and a drummer banging out a tune in the street.

“I got such a welcome, the fans chanting my name, and I could sense the expectation.

“There was a terrific buzz, and I just bought into the whole ethos of Preston North End.

“I scored in my first game, a left-footer from 25 yards.

“I remember it nestled in the bottom corner of the net, a great feeling.

“We had Ryan Kidd and Stuart Hicks sent off, though. It was a real battle at Hartlepool.”

Atkinson was bought as a winger, but when he was asked to fill a central midfield role, it was a position that saw him emerge as one of North End’s most impressive performers in that championship campaign.

His strong running in support of attack and defence, combined with controlled passing, dangerous dead-ball kicks and powerful shooting, made him a fans’ favourite.

“Playing in that position gave me a lot more freedom and expression, and I never looked back,” he said.

“I scored a diving header against Scunthorpe in front of the Town End and the supporters went mad, chanting my name.

“It was what you got into football for – the buzz.”

Atkinson admits the decision to join Brighton a couple of years later proved the most difficult of his football life.

“David Moyes didn’t see me fitting into his plans, the way he wanted to go,” he recalled.

“He said I didn’t have to leave, but my chances would be limited.

“Sean Gregan and Mark Rankine were performing well, David Eyres had arrived on the left wing and Lee Cartwright and Gareth Ainsworth were sharing duties on the right.

“I’m a logical person, so I felt my days were numbered. I’d enjoyed a hugely successful season in 1996 and I didn’t want to become a bit-part player.

“That was what took me away from Preston – but it was a tough call. Preston was my home, but you have to go where the work is in football.

“There was no guarantee of another contract, and it was the first year of the Bosman ruling which put panic in me.

“I’m not a risk taker, it wasn’t something I wanted to leave to chance.

“In hindsight, though, I’d have to say that was a mistake because I felt I had a lot more to offer Preston North End.

“I think I should have stayed at Deepdale.”

After Brighton there were spells at Scunthorpe, Scarborough and Rochdale, where a knee injury ended his professional career at 30.

“I played for Scarborough when they were relegated from the Football League in 1999 – the final day was a horrible experience,” said Graeme.

“Carlisle’s goalkeeper Jimmy Glass famously scored in the last few seconds against Plymouth to keep them up – and that meant Scarborough were down.

“When I joined them they were so far adrift at the bottom it looked a hopeless cause – I was just playing to get myself another club.

“But suddenly they sparked a 16-game unbeaten run, and on the last day they needed a point.

“They got a draw against Peterborough, and we were celebrating with the crowd on the pitch at the McCain Stadium.

“Then the unthinkable happened and Glass, who was on loan from Swindon, scored.

“It was devastating, coming 10 minutes after our game ended.”

Atkinson found himself working at Leyland Trucks and was turning out for part-timers Lancaster City.

“It is difficult to comprehend what it will be like when you finish in the pro game,” says Atkinson.

“From what you’ve had before in terms of the enjoyment, the adulation and getting paid a wage for something you love, then going out and starting again is tough.

“You know it has to come to an end at some point, but for it come to an end as quickly as it did for me was hard.

“The most difficult aspect is adapting to life outside football, managing finances differently and knowing the safety net of pro football has gone.

“I was working at a factory from 7am until 4pm, then going to train with Lancaster at Kirkham Prison twice a week.

“The first thing that came along was that offer from Tony Hesketh, which was massively appreciated and it kept me in football.

“I’m an optimist and a realist. I had to adapt to life outside the professional game and I think I’ve done that.”

These days Graeme works at Myerscough College’s football centre of excellence, and is carving out a reputation as a top-class coach.

“I played for 14 years and had 10 different managers,” said Graeme. “To satisfy all their requirements, I suppose I did well.

“The game has changed so much, but I’m not bitter.

“Players at the top wield all all the power, demanding longer contracts and more money.

“But down the ladder you’ve got to prove yourself month in and month out.

“I didn’t make it to the top, but I loved every second of it.

“It is fantastic to return to Deepdale and chat with Derek Shaw, the chairman, Brian Hickson, the kit-man, or Paul McKenna, who was there when I was at Preston.

“Last time I was there I looked up at the new Invincibles Stand and I thought to myself, maybe my little contribution 12 years ago, went some way to helping North End become the fantastic club they are today.”