I didn’t grow up in a footballing family. My dad was more of a trainspotting sort of guy, my brother found skateboarding and my mum, when she wasn’t looking after us all preferred a spot of gardening. However, my grandad has been Preston through and through for as long as I can remember. He had a strong devotion and has been following Preston since shortly after the 2nd World War up until the mid-90’s. I remember him telling me stories of Tom Finney, Alan Kelly, and Bill Shankly when I was growing up. He has boxes full of scrapbooks that he would read to me full of photos and newspaper clippings. Teaching me well from a young age.
But my love for the game grew at home, playing Fifa 95 and Premier League manager on the Sega. I had a large Subbuteo table and with my pen and pad played out full seasons. Watching Euro 96 is one of my earliest memories of football. That’s when I persuaded my parents to get cable TV so I could start watching Premier League as well as Champions League games. Every night after school and at the weekends I would go down to the park just for a kick around. I also recall staying up late to watch Football Italia and any other football highlight show I could get my hands on. I was hooked from a young age but never had anyone to take me on the games.
It was my friends who took me to get my first Preston North End season ticket once I got into high school. We would go to every home game early, just so we could get fish and chips for dinner then visit the National Football Museum. Every game we went in before they moved it from its righteous home. Following Preston up and down the country became a regular occurrence, even taking the day off school a couple of times for them Tuesday night matches on the south coast. But my first away game was much closer to home. It was a frosty day in early March 2004, the days were starting to get longer but it was still baltic outside. With it being my 1st away game I was unsure of what to expect. I arrived feeling apprehensive and left feeling euphoric, despite not remembering much about the match itself, I remember a lot about the occasion.
The Journey to Turf Moor
Our coach left from Deepdale shortly after midday, the journey took around 30 minutes to arrive into the small east Lancs town. Pulling off at junction 10 of the M65, the rows of coaches we were travelling in were greeted by a police escort. This is when I knew it was real. The rivalry was true and fuelled with passion and a dislike for one another. The escort drove us through the old market town. The closer we got to Turf Moor, the more people we found watching us as we passed through. People standing in their dressing gowns, a cup of tea in hand stood on their doorstep like we were being paraded. It started off with some petty back and forth hand gestures and the odd can or bottle thrown at the coach.
Preston were heading for a mid-table finish this season and we had already beat Burnley 5-3 at home in December a few months earlier. Burnley, on the other hand, were in a relegation scrap and needed something from the game to ease the pressure. But with a growing team and rumours of replacing manager Craig Brown at the end of the season, Preston fans were filled with hope that a change could get them a step closer to the Premier League.
Once we arrived at the ground the police escort then walked us to the David Fishwick stand, an old wooden stand that looked out of place next to a modern James Hargreaves Stand but mirrored the Bob Lord stand in age and looks. A sea of Lilywhite shirts blasting anti-Burnley songs out from top of their lungs on the short walk to the ground. Being a part of that felt incredible, and inevitably, like an addiction, I wanted more.
Most of what I can remember from that day is the smells, the sights, and the cold breeze blustering into the ground. The smell of a hot chicken Balti pie. Coffee so hot it burnt a layer of skin from my mouth. The pies were cold on the outside but like lava in the centre. I was wearing a shirt 4 sizes too big for me and I could smell the dust out on the terraces. I also remember a small 15” TV sat on top of 10-foot wall playing sky sports, I think they’ve updated that TV now.
It was a true footballing experience. Everybody stood for the duration of the match, besides the 15 minutes at halftime. I remember feeling as though I was going to get splinters from the old wooden chairs. Most looked as though they’d been replaced, by more wooden chairs, but we’ll get to that later. Oh and believe me, they aren’t as comfortable as the usual plastic seats. For those of you who haven’t had the ‘pleasure’ of sitting in the away end off Turf Moor.
It Was All Kicking Off
It was a tense start to the match, crunching tackles, pushing and shoving, with both teams trying to find a breakthrough. The atmosphere was electric and the away crowd tried intimidating the home fans just as much they tried to intimidate us. I was fixated on the match but also couldn’t steer my concentration away from the rivalry between ourselves and the Burnley fans. Midway through the 1st half Burnley took the lead with a goal from Robbie Blake, that’s when I knew we were a minority in the stadium, hearing a roar from the home crowd whilst we stood silent and disappointed. But only for a short moment as the players picked themselves up and went straight back to the centre circle.
Not long after Ricardo Fuller was booked. Fuller had become a fans favourite during his 2 years at Preston and he loved that he had that connection, most believe his 2 years at Preston were the best of his career, he was a unit upfront during his time at Deepdale and very important to the team.
The end of the 1st half soon came around, we were 1-0 down and I knew we had to come out in the 2nd half with more fire and conviction in the final third. The Preston fans disbanded and crowded down to the foyer to grab a pint and have a quick smoke. The North End faithful were back before the 2nd half kicked off and rallied behind the team knowing we were still in the game and wanted to leave with a result.
2nd Half (PieGate)
Not long into the 2nd half, we won a penalty. This was our chance to get back into the game. Graham Alexander picked up the ball knowing he was the man to take this penalty, he will always be a Preston Icon. A true captain, leader, goal scorer and all round Gent.
Alexander still has one of the best penalty records in history with 69 goals from the spot out of 74 taken. He knew he was going to score, and we knew he was going to score. His right foot would put the ball past any keeper from 12 yards, with ease and without hesitation. So it was no surprise when he levelled the game and celebrated it right in front of the travelling fans.
The away end erupted with jubilation and relief, there were limbs in the air, a grown man on my back and a pie flying around the terraces with meat and potato dropping out as it made it’s way over to the home fans. There was a fan at the back jumping up and down holding one of the wooden seats above his head. I was kind of scared I was going to get knocked out by a flying chair but I was too excited to care!
The floodlights shone down on the pitch for the remainder of the match as the sun started to set behind our stand. But the game never moved on from that equaliser. A few yellow cards were handed out to Burnley players before Ricardo Fuller got his 2nd yellow of the game in the 90th minute and was sent for an early shower. Before Leaving the pitch Fuller slowly walked over to the away end, a few thousand Preston North End fans clapping a chanting his name. Thinking back to that moment it’s enough to give me goosebumps.
A Share Of The Spoils, Until Next Time
The final whistle went and we stuck around to clap the players for their effort that day. Turning around I witnessed what must have been a tradition when travelling to Turf Moor. Some of the bigger blokes towards the back putting their feet through the wood chairs, kicking them off their hinges, then throwing them like they were in the discus at the Olympics.
Leaving the stadium we were met by the same police officers to escort us back to the coaches, only this time the numbers had grown and they had been joined with a number of policemen on horseback. They rushed us back onto the coaches and finally out of the bitter east Lancashire breeze that had frozen me to the bone over the last few hours.
On the journey home, we had already started to discuss which away games we would be going to the following season. Working out how many games we would be able to afford and hoping for no long journeys on a Tuesday night, there’s a story there for another time.
Win, lose or draw this was always going to be a special day. I’ve certainly seen better away games since. I’ve even seen better derby matches. But this day will always hold a special place in my heart as not only my first away game but my first derby game.
I was exhausted once I arrived home, 2 hours of none stop singing, chanting and shouting in that weather had taken its toll on me. But I still couldn’t sleep as I was full of adrenaline. All that was on my mind was when the next away game would come. It was a shocking 5-0 defeat to Wigan. But I’ve tried to blur that one out of my memory. It was a brilliant day and the beginning of a new era in my life.