The former Premier League frontman who laughs he is keeping in shape with a comeback in mind, ex-Bury boss Andy Preece admits he still harbours ambitions of managing again. As assistant at Chorley, though, he has felt in enjoyable harmony over the past 16 months, with every hope of a survival this season that would rank as one of his proudest footballing feats.
“It was the best education that I could have had,” he says of his four years at the Bury helm, during which he was given an overwhelmingly authentic introduction to life at the deep end. A few weeks from now, it will be 16 years since he left his position as player-manager, with the club 12th in Division Three and emphasising a need to cut expenditure.
It was not long at all before the then-36-year-old striker was back in the on-field action, scoring on his debut for divisional rivals Carlisle United in a win over Torquay United. His recollection of the hardships and uncertainty at Bury, though, is of course poignantly pertinent today, given the Shakers’ very public yet seemingly inevitable recent demise.
“Four years there, we had an administration that we went through, an owner who lost all his money, the club was on the brink of going out of business. We had to cut the budget and try and keep the club going.
"When you’re playing, coaching and managing all at the same time in your first job, you have to try and find a way around it. It was an unbelievable education, and at the time you just go with it, you don’t realise how difficult that job is.
"I think that’s always stood me in good stead. You need good people around you, that’s the key thing, and I managed to get that around me at Bury, and I’ve always had that at other clubs as well.
"I felt at that time we’d done an unbelievable job in making sure the club hadn’t gone out of business, because that’s what the remit was. It wasn’t about being successful or anything, it was ‘please make sure the club doesn’t go out of business.’
"We managed to do that and managed to get in the play-offs in League Two (Division Three at the time). Fast-forward a few years and now the club’s gone out of business, it really hurts, because I was close to that and know how hard people worked to keep that club alive.
"It should never have happened.”
Initially placed in charge alongside defender Steve Redmond following Neil Warnock’s switch to Sheffield United, Andy took the reins full-time at the end of the 1999/2000 campaign. He was still just 33 at the time, and would keep them in the third tier for another season afterwards, before 2001/02 brought three months in administration and a relegation in what was a desperately sad year for various reasons.
His last full season yielded a play-off semi-final, though his burgeoning managerial years had been far more about clawing away at overall survival. On the pitch at least, survival is undoubtedly the very aim this season for his present-day side Chorley – the Magpies three adrift at the foot of the Vanarama National League 19 games in – but he has already had unforgettable euphoria in his first year or so with the Victory Park outfit.
Coming into this campaign off the back of a joyous National League North play-off final success against Spennymoor Town back in May, the Lancashire side are in the fifth tier for the first time since 1990. In a league of predominantly full-time clubs, the part-timers are trying to pack enough of a punch to still be standing when the bell rings on the season in six months’ time.
“We knew it’d be very difficult, but it’s very hard to know until you actually get into starting playing the games how far you might be away, or if you’re gonna be challenging. We knew that being part-time, having the lowest budget in the league, training the least, it was going to be difficult, but we also had faith in the players we had; we felt that they were better than Conference North level.
“So it was a little bit of the unknown. It has been difficult, but saying that, there are a lot of positives as well, even though the position isn’t great at the minute.”
As well as moving up a league, travelling to the likes of Dover, Eastleigh, Torquay and Yeovil – between 460 and 620-mile round trips – was a stark reality Chorley knew they would face in 2019/20. Pre-season preparations were also beset by a number of injuries to an already compact squad, but it is a club that has been on the up for some time, full of diligent characters on and off the pitch with no willingness to shirk the challenge.
BREAKING NEWS 🗞️ | A new face has been added to the backroom team; former Bury boss Andy Preece ➡️ https://t.co/MgMVAw2ynS #MagpieFamily pic.twitter.com/Q3h77KccUb
— Chorley Football Club (@chorleyfc) July 3, 2018
Although he is a vastly experienced, wise head in the dugout, Andy is a right-hand man (along with ex-Accrington Stanley, Barrow and Fleetwood Town defender Jonathan Smith) to club stalwart Jamie Vermiglio. Matt Jansen’s former assistant, the young Magpies boss stepped up last summer into his first senior management job.
The archetypal ‘good cop/bad cop’ dynamic is not necessarily how it works, however, as Andy explains.
“If something needs to be said, either of us will have a go and maybe get into the players, but we bounce off each other really. Jamie’s really good and I’ve been so impressed with him since I’ve come to the club; I just try and see where I can help or have an impact.
"It’s a good partnership and then we’ve got Jonathan Smith as well. Some of the games he’s scouting, but he’s another pair of eyes, and I think having the three of us is a really good dynamic.”
Current chairman Ken Wright was the manager when Chorley last played at this level, and they went down by a solitary point and two goals that season. This May’s promotion was dramatically secured despite failing with their first two penalties against Spennymoor, with keeper Matty Urwin sensationally helping turn the tide, and Chorley had only finished the regular season a point behind champions Stockport County – fine margins ever the central theme it seems.
Northwich Victoria boss from 2009 to 2012, Andy was most recently director of football at Airbus UK Broughton, where his four-and-a-half years included three European qualifications and two 2nd-place finishes in the Welsh Premier League. Strongly linked in the summer to the assistant job to Terry McPhillips at Blackpool, the club he scored 40 goals for in the 90s, Andy admits he still wants to lead from the front one day, though Chorley has offered unique appeal.
“I wanna be a number one again. That’s where I wanna be, I think I can do a really good job and I’ve proved it previously at all the clubs I’ve been at, but sometimes you have to take a step back when those opportunities are not there.
"I couldn’t be at a better club, with better people, a better group of players and management team than Chorley. I think probably anywhere else, I wouldn’t even consider being assistant manager, but I knew Jamie and it’s been like a breath of fresh air for me.
"I’ve really, really enjoyed it, looking at the games slightly differently, and having to do a different role. I’m enjoying every minute of it and it would be difficult, if something came up, to leave.
"That’s where my ambitions are long-term, but in the short-term – and it might be long-term – I’m more than happy to be at Chorley, and we’ve had a fantastic time so far.”
Speaking of fantastic times, a manager (who is ever so slightly revered at Edgeley Park…) is the chief personality Andy always remembers with extra vivid fondness from his life in the game to date.
“You get some great characters that make you laugh, at probably the wrong moments, when you’re trying to be serious! Danny Bergara at Stockport, some of his team talks and the way he described things, and with his accent, being Uruguayan, he’d come out with some stories and the lads would be trying to keep serious faces.
"You’d just look across the dressing room and I remember David Miller was one of the worst; he could not keep a straight face, and then he’d start me off. It was a brilliant time with Danny Bergara at Stockport, we had a great dressing room, and I think half the time he did it on purpose!
"He was a massive character and I learned a lot off him.”
Way back before he was learning from a County icon, and even before he was rattling the net for a living, the Worcestershire native was taking it all in simply as a fan, with non-league part of the fabric from the beginning.
“Aston Villa was my favourite club, although I was a Worcester City fan as well, so I had my non-league team. When Villa were at home, Worcester seemed to be at home the following week, so I had my heroes at both clubs.
"I always felt ‘maybe I could play for Worcester one day,’ but never thought I’d reach the level that Villa were at. My heroes were always the strikers; Peter Withe, Gary Shaw, Tony Morley, Andy Gray, Brian Little.
"At Worcester, Paul Moss, Mick Tuohy, Steve Crompton were heroes for me. I just loved football from a very early age, it was my passion and it still is my passion now.”
Playing for and managing Worcester City, Andy led the Blues to the FA Cup second round in 2005/06, where a full house (4,163) at the old St George's Lane saw the Conference North club run League One Huddersfield Town close in front of the BBC cameras. After the 1-0 loss, their opponents drew Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the next round.
Although he didn’t wear the claret and blue of Villa in his career, Andy did play in the same division for top-flight Crystal Palace, as well as starting a 4-1 win over them in the League Cup fourth round, which included a rare double from England boss Gareth Southgate. Early Premier League sticker book collectors may remember a dreadlocked Andy from those Eagles days, and he recalls how he felt at the time stepping up two leagues to join the brave new world of English football's rebranded big time.
“There’s always pressure when you go to any club, and you’re always thinking ‘am I good enough?’ It’s just something inside you, unless you’re Ibrahimovic or Ronaldo or Messi, someone like that, I’m sure every top player has that little bit of doubt until they maybe get that first goal, or the first win, and you get recognised by the rest of the players.
"Going to Stockport, I’d been at Wrexham and I hadn’t had a great record; I scored a few goals but not many, and I was going up a league. There’s a lot of pressure going up a league when you’ve not really done a lot, but fortunately, second game I scored away at Swansea and the confidence went from there.
"I had a little brief spell at Palace where I scored against Everton, and the first seven games I scored four goals. You think ‘I might be good enough for this level.’
"Ultimately, I wasn’t good enough and dropped back down again, but I was close, and I gave it a good go.”
His time with the South Londoners also brought his first real taste of music bustling its way into the changing room. In an era when Wimbledon’s pounding speakers were bucking a trend, Andy recalls the Dons’ Selhurst Park tenants giving Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ a pre-match airing or two, with a game against Coventry City standing out in particular.
What if he had his way today with Chorley’s behind-the-scenes playlist on a match day, even with just one song?
“That’s a great one. Mine would never get on!
“Big Meat Loaf fan, I love a lot of his songs. I’d probably go for ‘Bat Out of Hell,’ just a great song.
“AC/DC would be another one, so more going back rather than today’s songs.”
His Stockport spell is the one that brings him the football equivalent of that 'old song' nostalgia. Four trips to Wembley, a stack of goals on a personal level, camaraderie and community running through the club - he says it is hard to top when asked where he has been happiest in football.
Winning goalscorer Andy Preece, following #StockportCounty's 2-1 FA Cup 3rd Round victory over QPR pic.twitter.com/oZYmrux1Op
— Football Past (@thecentretunnel) April 25, 2017
Coaching at Chorley’s soccer school had filled his day again just prior to this conversation, though he light-heartedly (probably…) suggests he is staying in good nick just in case the first team need a seasoned marksman to throw into the mix at some point. Fitness aside, family takes precedence when he is briefly away from football.
“Since I’ve gone to Chorley I’ve not had a lot of time outside football! There’s been that many jobs, but seriously, I like going to the gym, keep myself fit – I think half of that is I think I’ll make a comeback one day!
"I like all sports. Now I’ve got a grandson as well, my biggest hobby now is probably looking after him.
"He’s only six months old and it’s fantastic having him; when we got promoted he was only a few weeks old but he was at the game. When I get chance I’m mostly with him.”
To family and players alike, he has a bundle to pass on. Three decades in the game does not come without having a selection box of attributes to draw upon, and a dose of defiance when required has gone with Andy since the very start.
“It’s something I’ve took throughout my career; if you get knockbacks, don’t give up. If people have got negative things to say about you, just try and prove them wrong.
"I made my debut at Worcester at 16, came on for about ten/15 minutes, went upstairs and one of the directors said to me ‘you’ll never make it, lad.’ I’m a 16-year-old boy, just made my debut for my hometown club, absolutely buzzing, and you’re just thinking ‘why would you say something like that?’
"So that rang in my head for a long, long time. You get people trying to cut you down and say you’re not good enough.
"Just keep going, follow your dreams, you never know what might happen. Until there’s no breath left in my body I’m gonna keep going, and hopefully, there’s still a lot of glory around the corner with Chorley, because I think we could have a real big season.
"If we stay up it’ll be one of the biggest achievements in my career, and we’re in there, we’re in there fighting. We’ve got a great chance and I believe we can do it.”
If a superb sequel to his first season at Victory Park does indeed materialise, it will take its spot in his memory banks neatly alongside some cherished days and nights as a player.
“I’ve been fortunate to play in some really big games. I’ve played in semi-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup against Liverpool (for Crystal Palace in 1995), two legs, played at Anfield, and that was a fantastic experience.
“When I was at Stockport, beating QPR in the FA Cup, scoring the winner when they were a top-six team with Ray Wilkins, Les Ferdinand and a whole string of England internationals, that was a massive game. For Crystal Palace when I scored my first Premier League goal against Everton and Neville Southall was one of the best goalkeepers in the world at that time, I had to pinch myself and think ‘was this really happening?’
“You dream about things like that but you never think they’re ever going to happen. Fortunately, I managed to live a lot of my dreams.”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes