About Me

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Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
I'm a director of Maidenhead United Football Club. For ten seasons one of my roles at the club was to produce the match programme. The aim of this blog was to write football related articles for publication in the match programme. In particular I like to write about the representation of football in popular culture, specifically music, film/TV and literature. I also write about matches I attend which generally feature Maidenhead United.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The One and Only North End

Little did I realise on my first visit to Deepdale on a chilly December Saturday in 1989, that the functional covered terraced that was to be my viewing point for a dull 1-0 win for North End over Reading, was to become a semi-regular perch within a few years. As my attention drifted away from the mediocrity on show on an artificial pitch glistening with frost, I admired the steepling Kop at the far end, and the unusual barrel roofed West stand which stretched along the left hand touchline. Both structures reflected the fading tradition of a club and ground where good times were long forgotten memories. North End's fortunes were to get worse before they got better but I was to bear witness to the first sparks in a revival which eventually saw the club re-established in what in 1989 was still known in Division Two, playing at a wholly rebuilt Deepdale.
This came about when I ended up in Higher Education at what was then known as Lancashire Polytechnic. Drifting through A Levels with little thought of what do next I set my sights low by only opting for the second tier of HE admissions known as PCAS, whilst the country's finest fought it out in the UCCA process. My academic profile was suitably unimpressive so that I was only accepted by what would become the University of Central Lancashire, introduced at the open day as having an average third division  football team. Having spent the past four seasons watching Reading I watched at first hand Preston's progress, or rather lack of, and thus didn't hurry down to Deepdale once I arrived in the town in September 1991. 
I first wandered up the Deepdale Road in March 1992 for a game against Brentford, opting to stand in the Paddock in front of the main Pavilion stand."Break the Southern bastard's legs" was the cry as the game began, although I had nothing to fear in a sparse crowd of three and a half thousand, indeed the first half was something of a commercial success personally as the bloke behind me was keen to buy my cigarettes for 20p each. 
Somewhat against the odds, Preston beat the champions elect by the odd goal in five, in a game entertaining enough to entice me to return the following Saturday for  the match against Chester. This game saw Preston show what appeared to be their true colours under beleaguered manager Les Chapman, losing 3-0. This reflected a depression which had engulfed a club mired in the bottom two divsions for over a decade. During the game a group of supporters nearby paraded a bed sheet bearing the legend "please don't let our club die", defiantly waving it at the directors box above our heads in the main stand, which sparked a round of heartfelt applause from around the ground.
Relegation was just about avoided with a 17th placed finish but the following season had hardly begun before Chapman was sacked, being temporarily replaced by Sam Allardyce, who had only recently arrived as Chapman's assistant.A student discount had tempted me to go along more regularly and I was rewarded by an autumn full of entertaining games at Deepdale. Allardyce's team, in stark contrast to the reputation he would acquire once his managerial career got going, played exciting football which stimulated the crowd into passionate support. Helped by what was often a large away following, there was a fair atmosphere round the ground that autumn, which suggested a latent potential was being tapped.
On the pitch striker Tony Ellis had returned from Stoke in the summer and regained his terrace hero status with a hat trick away at Blackpool. Midfielders Lee Cartwright and Lee Ashcroft provided dynamism and flair whilst centre back Mike Flynn was as forthright a defender as they come. Flynn typified the way the players seemed to enjoy playing for Allardyce turning to the Paddock with a broad grin after he had taken out an opponent. However performances came secondary to results for the board who after much consideration decided to look elsewhere for a permanent replacement for Chapman. 
In the meantime I enjoyed a masterclass from Peter Shilton to ensure Plymouth took home all three points, an afternoon of terrace banter aimed at Stoke's Graham Shaw whose swap deal with Ellis was rumoured to be the result of Mrs Shaw's off the pitch activities, and a cracking Lancashire derby with Bolton Wanderers which ended 2-2. Best of all though was an FA Cup 1st Round replay against Bradford which the Bantams won 5-4, a result which probably sealed Allardyce's fate.
His replacement was football pariah John Beck, which led me to temporarily elect to call a halt to my trips to Deepdale, a decision that appeared to be vindicated when North End ended the season by being relegated to Division Four.
With little to do of a Saturday afternoon in Preston, and being curious to see how bad basement football was, I returned to Deepdale the following autumn, and to my surprise soon got caught up in the fervour which Beck had created, following the team all the way to Wembley. Knowing it would take a while to turn the team round on the pitch with his radical methods, Beck had gone all out to reach the hearts and minds of the Preston support. Instrumental in this was the decision to return the Town End to the home supporters, pushing the away fans into the terrace in front of the west stand. The passion generated within the new home end, in spite of the often meagre away following made it the place to be, as Beck encouraged fans to do everything they could to get behind the team. Thus there were flags and banners (I particularly liked the Galatasary one after they had beaten Manchester United), and Dave the Trumpeter, who would sound the advance everytime the Preston keeper launched another ball forward.
The football was certainly ugly, a series of long balls pumped forward without mercy, whilst the youth team ringed the touchline with towels ready to dry the ball so it could be propelled forward with equal directness, but results followed with home games won week in week out, Preston topping the table as autumn turned into winter.
Beck was equally ruthless with his selection policy. Players either complied or they were out. Ellis and Cartwright remained. Fringe player Ryan Kidd came to the fore with some wholehearted performances in defence. Youngster Gareth Ainsworth impressed on the right wing, with the experience of David Moyes, Paul Raynor and Ian Bryson all used to good effect. Much of the squad flew out of favour as quickly as they had come in and it was this intolerance of anyone deemed to have diverted from the method, which ultimately saw Beck's team fall just short of promotion.
Notice that the side needed a little extra was served in November when Football League rookies Wycombe Wanderers came to Deepdale. Under the leadership of Martin O'Neill Wanderers were looking for back to back promotions following their Conference title win the previous season. The match was duly built up by the local media, O'Neill rattling me at least when he responded to a reporter's question about turning down the Notttingham Forest job with a patronising reply about it being his fault if he ended up in charge at Maidenhead United, a put down he used with annoying regularity throughout his managerial career.
Wycombe won the game 3-2 thanks to a late goal from Tony Hemmings. The fervour generated by the game was infectious enough to outlive this disappointment and I was hooked by the passion on display. Off the pitch I remember a man sitting in the West Stand baby on one arm rising to shake his fist at the away fans below him. On it, as North End tried in vain to equalise in stoppage time, Paul Raynor responded to an injured opponent by picking him up off the ground and planting him firmly back on his feet.
Despite this setback Preston's promotion challenge continued through the winter and spring as I watched from the Town End, my favourite moment coming when one of Tom Finney's youngest relatives was introduced to the crowd before a game, and then cheered as he toddled from the centre circle, ball at his feet, towards the Town End goal.
As the business end of the season arrived, any hopes of automatic promotion were extinguished on the last day in April, when Carlisle United won 3-0 in the sunshine, the final whistle seeing home and away supporters streaming out across the road into Moor Park to settle their differences.
So Preston provided my first experience of the play offs. They lost the first leg of their semi final tie at Torquay 2-0, and when United, lent support by some Blackpool fans I knew, restored their two goal advantage fifteen minutes into the second leg, the season looked to be over for North End. The crowd who had seen their roars of support at kick off rewarded by an early goal from Tony Ellis, were stunned when Gregory Goodridge waltzed through the defence to equalise, but the relentless in your face attitude of the Preston team sparked the game's turning point ten minutes ahead of the interval. The ever fiery Raynor was decked by Torquay defender Darren Moore sparking an inevitable melee which was followed by Moore's dismissal. This ignited the atmosphere once more and Moyes had put Preston back in the lead by half time. A Stuart Hicks goal soon after the break levelled the aggregate score but in an ever more tense game Preston could not force a winner meaning the tie went into extra time. The tension was reflected by my cigarette consumption and as I sucked on the last one, the winning goal finally arrived from Raynor with four minutes to go. The final whistle saw the fans stream onto the pitch, myself included, many taking the opportunity to rip up a piece of the plastic pitch, the match being the last to be played on an artificial surface in England to date.
A friend in London providing accommodation meant I was able to take the opportunity to go down south for the play off and so having bought my ticket I could enjoying the experience of living in a town preparing for a Wembley final. In pleasingly traditional style, shop fronts were decorated and Football special trains were organised. As well as the usual charms being displayed, fragments of the plastic pitch were also a frequent sight. 
Wycombe were to provide the final opposition to promotion, so surely this would lead to appropriate revenge for the game earlier in the season. It looked that way when a spectacular overhead kick from Bryson gave North End the lead, which despite being equalised within a minute, was restored by Raynor before half time. The second half though saw Wycombe sweep away Preston with three goals to romp to promotion, Beck's bold move in effectively sacking Hicks after the Torquay game and replacing him with teenager Jamie Squires backfiring as the youngster's inexperience was targeted by Wycombe.
My time in Preston soon ended with graduation and Beck didn't last much longer as his hubris refused to countenance any change in tactics despite a decline in results the following season. The historical allure of this old school club based in a declining northern industrial town meant there would always be a place in my heart for Preston North End and I have continued to go once or twice a season ever since. Ironically these have exclusively been away games bar one visit to the new Deepdale, naturally taking advantage of a free Saturday or midweek evening to see Preston play down south. Thus I was at Orient when Preston eventually won Division Four under the management of Gary Peter in 1996, and then in the best example of Beck's legacy saw David Moyes team triumph by a single Michael Appleton goal at Craven Cottage in 2000, with Paul McKenna outstanding in the midfield against Jean Tigana's Fulham who had won all eleven league games from the start of the season to that point.
Their failure to make the final step into the Premier League despite a long stay in the division below has seen Preston fall back to where I found them, only in much better shape with a rebuilt Deepdale and crowds to match. Fortunately they seem to be over the worst of their financial struggles and not only thanks to their unique appendage will always remain to me the one and only North End.

A gallery of my Preston North End memorabilia can be see here: http://prestonpause.tumblr.com/

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