Ronaldo dribbles, runs, and scores! Messi did it again! Neymar – the winning goal! We have all heard those cries on football pitches: the star striker saves the day yet once again. But in reality, there are still ten men on the field, and as the saying goes – attack wins you games, defense wins you titles.
To correct the injustice of the (football) world, we invite you to a ten-part series with Olybet.TV, where we talk about defenders. But to make things a little more appetizing, let’s talk about the most productive defensemen in football history.
The hero of our story today is Graham Alexander, who may not be known to football fans today. Namely, the 52-year-old Scotsman already hung up his football shoes in 2012. But to tell his story, we have to turn the clock back to 1971.
Because that’s when little Graham saw the light of day in Coventry, a city of 350,000 inhabitants in central England. If the keenest football lovers began to suspect that Alexander represented Scotland on the international stage – they were right. Such a trick was possible thanks to his Scottish father, but by doing this he made his Irish mother slightly sad…
The gauntlet of lower leagues
Alexander received his football education at Scunthorpe United, for whom he made his debut (in the fourth division) in the 1990/91 season. By the next year, he already managed to fight for a place in the starting line-up, performing the duties of a right defender.
Between 1991 and 1995, he played 197 times for Scunthorpe in all leagues and scored 24 goals. However, this was not so much due to the fact that the game was played at the fourth or third league level, but because Alexander was simply a very good penalty taker.
In the summer of 1995, Luton Town decided to give the talented right-back a chance and bought him for £100,000. It is noteworthy, that the world transfer record at the time was £13 million, which AC Milan paid to Torino in 1992 for Gianluigi Lentini. The most expensive purchase of the Premier League in the summer of 1995 was Dennis Bergkamp (Inter -> Arsenal, €11.25 million).
For Luton, Alexander also got to experience EFL Championship (the second strongest league) football for the first time, which, however, did not last too long. Namely, the club quickly fell back to the third-strongest league. The right-back spent three and a half seasons in Luton, founded in 1885, with a total of 183 games and 17 goals across all series.
For Luton, Alexander once took two penalties in one game:
Became a legend in Preston
Despite playing at a lower level, Alexander stood out for his quality and in the winter of 1999, he was wanted by both Burnley and Preston North End. Alexander decided in favour of the latter and quickly rose to be the main man in the new club and over the years also to the status of a legend.
Namely, he spent nine consecutive years in Preston, during which he represented them in 400 matches and scored 64 goals. His most successful season was 2002/03 when he managed to score 11 goals in the English Premier League alone, the lion’s share of them, of course, from penalties.
Everything was beautiful until 2007 when Preston hinted to the then 36-year-old Alexander that they were not sure if it was worth extending his contract. The defender, who was looking for long-term security, then examined his possibilities and made a shocking transfer to the ranks of arch-rival Burnley. However, the reason was simple: they offered the right-back a two-year contract.
The long-awaited Premier League
In the ranks of Burnley, Alexander continued to plow the field as an iron man: in the 2007/08 season, he played in 43 matches in the Championship and a year later in all 46 matches. Not only did Burnley finish the season in fifth place, but they also had the playoffs waiting for them. There, Alexander participated in all three matches from start to finish and helped the club to the English Premier League.
Burnley did not throw the faithful workhorse overboard after the rise, and at the age of 38, Alexander finally managed to run on the pitch in the Premier League as well. What he had to show for it: 33 matches and 7 (!) goals.
Graham Alexander took 21 penalties for Burnley. Here are three of them:
However, it did not save Burnley from relegation, and Alexander spent the 2010/11 season in the EFL Championship again, before returning to third-tier Preston for his swansong at the age of 40 and ending his career. The total balance of his career over all series was therefore 981 matches and 131 goals.
No penalties were scored for Scotland
Oh yeah, by the way, Alexander also made his debut in the Scottish national team at the age of 30 and represented them in a total of 40 matches between 2002 and 2009. There, however, he did not open the goal tally, because men such as James McFadden (1 goal / 2 attempts), Kris Boyd (1/1) and Kenneth Miller (1/1) were ahead in the penalty hierarchy.
Although their balance was more or less decent – McFadden was the only one who was mistaken – it is still worth considering in retrospect why Alexander was not preferred to them, since during his career the right-back scored a total of 77 penalties, realizing more than 90% of them.
When he was asked after his career how he became so good, Alexander revealed his thought process. “I never practised with the goalkeeper because it affects your mindset. That’s how you try to look for patterns and start doubting yourself,” he said.
“You don’t want to play any mind games. For me, the goalkeeper is irrelevant. Their job is to disturb you, to distract you. Your job is to score when you take a penalty – even if the goalkeeper figures out the direction,” continued Alexander.
“I’m a big believer in a positive mindset – feel your shot and stick to it. You must believe you can score. Instil in yourself that “I will score a goal”. It may not always work out, but this way you give yourself the best chance. Even if you know the goalkeeper has done his homework on you, still take the penalty as you would. You just must be 100% focused. If you act like that, but you’re wrong, it’s easier for you to deal with yourself than if you change your mind halfway through the shot…”
Graham Alexander opens up on the behind-the-scenes of taking penalties: