Mark Collard: ‘a friend took this from Sky coverage of the Colchester game I mention in my answers. I am the baldy man with glasses and the moment captured is when Colchester were about to take a penalty but it sums up the day’

And now, Simon Grayson and Sunderland’s search for a point or three, as opposed to a search for a point even lower than reached so far, goes on Saturday to Deepdale, the famous old ground of the equally famous Preston North End with its Bill Shankly, Sir Tom Finney and Alan Kelly stands.

Mark Collard*, our PNE ‘Who are You?’ volunteer, was found at Twitter via Monsieur Salut’s electronic acquaintanceship with the singer and writer Maggie Holland. Mark, whose Twitter profile reads ‘archaeologist. director at Rubicon Heritage Services. PNEFC fan’, welcomes the newly positive Preston style under Alex Neill ‘after the tedium of a lot of the games under Grayson’. He sees our misery continuing with another defeat for the former PNE boss …

Salut! Sunderland: this wasn’t in the script, you near the top and us struggling at the bottom. Wasn’t Simon Grayson supposed to be making a step up?

Mark Collard: he certainly thought so, and  while the money doubtless helps, it always looked like a poison chalice of a job and still does. Sunderland seem in a very similar situation to Aston Villa when they came down last year.

Like their fans I think you will need to realise that there is a lot to rebuild and spending pots of money isn’t always the answer and you may not get back up for a few years. Grayson has a great track record of promotion from League 1 to Championship, but has never managed it to the Premier League. His job will be stripping out your dead wood and rebuilding but I can’t see him taking you up.

I recall some SAFC fans wanting Alex Neill as manager a while back. What are the qualities you see in him and has he got it in him to take you up?

Early days but he is young and ambitious, clearly focused and tactically astute. His commitment to attacking play is welcome after the tedium of a lot of the games under Grayson. I was warned by Norwich fans that we would ship goals but we currently have the best defensive record in the EFL so he has clearly developed that side. He has also taken the squad assembled by Grayson and added an extra bit of zip to them. He kicks every ball from the touchline, a contrast to Grayson who was outwardly much calmer.

Some fans getting a bit over-excited at the moment as we aren’t used to a good start and are talking about going up this year. I think we need another year to add some more quality and depth to the squad – it will be a test for Neil as we don’t have cash to throw around and there were mutterings at Norwich about the value for money/quality of his signings.

A chairman (though he no longer has that title) who moves from club to club, presumably owing only fleeting allegiance to any of them, is a puzzling one. Your assessment of the commitment and nous of Peter Ridsdale?

Obviously we can only refer to Peter R as the owner’s “advisor”, due to a previous little local difficulty resulted in him being disqualified as a director.

I have to say I was among the greatest doubters about him coming to us based on his reputation, but in the  years since he arrived he has turned us around from being a financial and organisational mess to a prudent and well-run club and helped to deliver success. There have been a few glitches on the way (eg everyone’s favourite appointment – Graham “Medals” Westley – who Ridsdale did admit was wrong man, wrong club, wrong time) but he has proved us wrong. He has been with a long time now (since 2012) and has shown he is willing to directly engage with fans which is welcome.

I see lots of Bens and a couple of interesting strikers – Mavididi, on loan from Arsenal, and Sean Maguire, who scored goals for fun at Cork City – in your squad. Who is making the difference for you and where are you still weak?

Daniel Johnson who we got for a song from Villa in 2015 has really come back to form and Neil has given him the freer role he needs. Our 18 year-old full back Josh Earl has been outstanding after making his debut earlier this season, as have the rest of the defence, especially Paul Huntington (the Cumbrian Cannavaro) and Darnell Fisher from Rotherham, one of Neil’s few signings, has been a surprise package after they leaked 98 goals last year.

We need another central midfielder to cover for Pearson who has a feisty tendency to clock up bookings and suspensions. We also need someone to replace Paul Gallagher, our outstanding playmaker over recent years as he ages. A more prolific goalscorer is also lacking – Maguire might be that player if he is given more of that role.

 

Image of ‘The Splash’ statue to Sir Tom by Steve Daniels at geograph.org.uk

Any handed-down stories of PNE’s glory days, Tom Finney and all?

It is hard to express how much Tom Finney was just part of the fabric of the town when I was growing up 10 years after he retired and still is even after his death – his funeral was like a state occasion. He is almost in every Prestonian’s DNA whether a involved fan or not.

What about your own highlights of following the club?

Standing on the Kop watching us win the old 3rd Division with Alan Ball Senior in 1970-71 is my earliest happy memory. Beating Birmingham in 2001 playoff semis while watching Trevor Francis have a toys out of pram meltdown. I managed to miss our Wembley 4-0 playoff win in 2015 – after nine playoff failures I decided I was a curse and went on holiday instead – I “watched” the game by text from friends in a bar in a mountain village in Spain, frightening the locals everytime we scored.

And the low moments?

There have been so many more than highlights. Having to seek re-election to the league in 1986  must be the worst, as the club seemed to be in terminal decline.

Two individual matches – the playoff final at Cardiff in 2005 when we had the ability to beat West Ham to get into the Premier League but just didn’t turn up on the day, and travelling 200 miles to Colchester for the last game of the 2015 season for a noon k/o on a Sunday thanks to Sky. We only need to win to go up but managed to screw it up and worse still hand our automatic promotion place to MK Franchise. It was long trip home.

Best players you’ve seen in your colours – and any who should have been allowed nowhere near them?

Brian Mooney – a magical player, Frank Worthington (towards the end of his career and with us for half a season but always a showman) and your new boy Aiden McGeady who was unplayable for parts of the second half of last season and worth the entrance money on his own. Defensively, Youl Mawene was my favourite – real class. There aren’t enough pages to describe the rubbish we have had to endure at times over the last 40 years.

Our Jordan (still one of us despite moving to Goodison) did well on loan for you. Did you sense he would go far?

From his arrival on loan he was outstanding and a different class – we have had some good keepers but common view was that he was the best we had seen as he seems to have no weaknesses. In my view he is already head and shoulders (sorry!) above Joe Hart and should be in the England team.

Other thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city and region, Grayson (if not fully covered above)?

Your fans deserve gallantry medals for keeping the faith and commitment to the club through some very trying circumstances.

In many ways it would have been better to have been relegated earlier to sort out the issues (very like Villa who had a very similar owner) as they were never going to be dealt with by buying a succession of second-rate premier league players. Football needs clubs and fans with unswerving commitment like Sunderland as an antidote to the Sky/PL/UEFA circus.

Do you suffer from being close to seriously big clubs or do you sense a lot of local pride in PNE?

We have always had that issue for decades so nothing new, but there is a very strong local support and commitment to the team though I feel we have missed a generation of local youngsters who have been consumed by the Premier League monster.

Hand on heart, where will our two clubs finish this season?

I suspect you will finish above midtable simply due to your resources and basic quality of some of your players, though I really can’t see you competing for promotion.

Obviously after your season start if the board lose their nerve and get rid of Grayson then you could be seriously flirting with relegation. I think we will be end up in or on the edge of the playoffs if we don’t have too many injuries as we don’t have the depth of cover.

Diving – along with the feigning of injury, waving of imaginary cards, wrestling at set pieces etc – is a scourge of Premier League football. Is it as bad at Championship level?

The wrestling at corners is getting worse and refs don’t have the guts to sort it out. You do get less of the rest of the playacting but it does tend to be the ex-Premier league teams who do indulge in it.

Best ref, worst ref at this level?

The standard of refereeing at Championship level is generally mediocre and I think is getting worse generally I think – over-fussy, inconsistent, often egocentric, and veering between no contact allowed and a blind eye to virtual GBH. No stand-out good ones – perhaps Andy Madley but he can be a bit up and down.

One thing that needs to be done to improve the lot of the ordinary supporter?

Getting rid of the tendency to steward/police games as if we are all criminals – there are some notable exceptions, including PNE – have a look at @pnepolice on Twitter to see how it can be done successfully.

Will you be at our game? What will be the score?

I’ll be there, sat on the Town End – I fancy us to win 2-1.

Jake wants answers …

Mark Collard on himself:

I have been a fan since the late 60s when my father took me to my first games and I have seen many more lows than highs! I have lived away from Preston for 35 years, working as an archaeologist but regularly went to as many games as possible over that time.

I am a season ticket holder again and a member of the active Whites in Exile group, a fine example of care in the community for the afflicted!

Interview: Colin Randall


The prize Guess the Score for this match will appear later today. And the Deepdale edition of Pete Sixsmith’s brilliant series on his first encoutners with opposing teams and their grounds is scheduled for Friday morning. It’s another wonderful read …

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Salut! Sunderland is written, illustrated and edited by - and principally for - supporters of Sunderland AFC. The site aims to be sufficiently literate and entertaining to appeal to people who do not follow SAFC but enjoy good football writing.

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