The play-offs were founded in 1987, in order to give the 4 teams finishing behind the automatic spots an opportunity at promotion. It’s one of the most exciting moments of the season for a lot of fans, especially the neutrals. They can also be painfully heartbreaking. All that handwork can be undone in a matter of seconds, a flash of brilliance or a momentary lapse of concentration. Nobody has struggled in the play-offs as much as Preston North End, they are the most unsuccessful participants with 9 failures out of 10 attempts. It was on the 10th time of asking when they finally broke that curse. We begin back in 1989 when they first played in the play-offs in the old division 3 (League 1).
Close to closing
Before we start with the play-off agony, let’s have a quick run-through of the madness that was going on around Deepdale at that time. The club almost found themselves closing the doors in the 80’s after relegation to the 4th division then finishing 23rd, they had to seek re-election to the league and a year later they successfully got promoted back to the third tier. It was a hard time for a lot of football teams as Preston knew all too well. Things could only get better, but it wouldn’t be easy.
In the 1988-89 season, Tony Ellis bagged 20 goals for North End helping them reach that final play-off spot. They had to come up against 3rd-place Port Vale, who had finished on the same points as 2nd place Sheffield United, only missing out on goal difference. Preston managed a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Deepdale, but a trip down to Vale Park would disappoint the few thousand travelling fans as they let slip and got beat 3-1. Preston were still heading in the right direction for a club that almost liquidated a few years earlier, but 4 poor seasons followed, ending with relegation back to the 4th tier.
Once again, Preston had to build from the bottom. Their first season back in the 4th tier and they finished 5th with an opportunity of an instant promotion back. They took a long trip down to Plainmoor where Torquay put one foot in the final after winning 2-0. In the return leg at Deepdale, North End took an early lead with Tony Ellis scoring in his 2nd era at the club. Torquay equalised quickly but 2 more goals for North End, including one for future manager David Moyes saw the game go to extra-time. 4 minutes from time, Paul Raynor put Preston 4-1 up on the day and 4-3 on aggregate. Preston would play Wycombe Wanderers in the final after they beat Carlisle 4-1 on aggregate.
The final was held at the old Wembley stadium and 40,000 fans turned up to see this 4th-tier play-off final. Preston started the game positive with an early goal, but an instant reply saw Wycombe draw level. A 2nd goal for North End came before the break, they were 2-1 up and only 45 minutes away from promotion. However, Wycombe came out a different team in the 2nd half, as well as Preston having a disastrous 2nd half conceding 3 goals and losing the final 4-2. It was a disappointing end to what was a positive season. Preston fans would be expecting promotion the following season after coming so close this time.
Another season of Preston flirting with the play-offs, didn’t seem enough for the board, manager John Beck was dismissed and assistant manager Gary Peters took charge for the final push to secure a play-off spot. He did this with the help of a young skinny 19-year-old lad called David Beckham. You may have heard of him. Beckham came on a short loan, making an immediate impact by scoring directly from the corner spot in his first game.
He scored a 2nd with a trademark free-kick against Fulham, he had a great impact on the team and helped push them into securing a play-off spot. Unfortunately, the loan spell was cut short because Fergie needed him for his first Premier League start. North End faced Bury in the play-off semi-final and lost both legs on the small margin of 1-0.
Perhaps if Beckham had stayed until the end of the season, he may have just had enough quality to help them get promoted. North End were looking at a 3rd season in the 4th tier, and a 3rd failure in the play-offs to date.
The following season, Preston didn’t need to go through the heartache of the play-offs. With the help of Andy Saville bagging 30 goals for the club, as well as Kevin Kilbane, who began to attract attention from bigger clubs with his performances, Preston finished top of the pile and 8 points clear of the play-off spots. Preston still had one of the smallest clubs around, but after their Baxi take-over a couple of years prior and promotion to the 3rd tier, the club began to build on the squad in hopes of further progression in the seasons to come whilst veteran defender David Moyes would be made into assistant manager whilst still plying his trade at the club.
1999-2001: The Moyes Years
Preston settled for 2 mid-table finishes in the following 2 seasons as they built their squad with acquisitions such as Sean Gregan, David Eyres and Mark Rankine, whilst Paul McKenna started to break through into the squad, making for a solid midfield. As well as Kurt Nogan and Jon Macken up front and future captain Graham Alexander in defence, Preston also promoted David Moyes to the full-time manager role. The strength in depth helped Preston to a 5th place finish in the 98/99 season. Despite this growing squad, they were beat 2-1 over 2 legs against Gillingham, who went on to lose against Man City in the Division 2 play-off final.
The following season, on the turn of the century Preston finished top of the third tier helped by Jon Mackens 25 goals. Moyes was a natural and had already started to gain attention from chairmen around the country. The 2000/01 season was Preston’s first in the 2nd tier since the early 80s, a club with so much history were finally heading in the right direction and Deepdale was buzzing.
They managed a very impressive 4th placed position that season, meaning in the first season back in the 2nd tier, they had a shot at heading straight to the Premier League. Preston hadn’t been in the top-flight since relegation in the early 60s. Throughout the 50s North End were a strong force in English football being a being FA cup runners-up, finishing 2nd in the league twice, North End only just missed out on adding to their titles since the early days of football.
Play-off semi-final 2nd leg: Preston Vs Birmingham
Preston came up against Birmingham City over 2 legs. In the first leg at St Andrews, Birmingham took the advantage with a 1-0 win. So going into the 2nd leg at Deepdale, it was all or nothing for Preston. The game was being played in front of 3 stands as the Alan Kelly Town End was in the middle of construction. The atmosphere was still electric and that transitioned into the team’s performance as they came out of the tracks dominant in their attacking football.
Early Pressure paid off and in the 24th-minute as David Healy put the Lilywhites 1-0 up with a rocket strike underneath the bar from the edge of the area, more chances came and Birmingham were lucky not to be 2 or 3 down at half-time as Healy, Rankine, Macken and Gregan all had opportunities to double the lead. As the sun started to set in the 2nd half Birmingham found a way back into the game, and a Geoff Horsfield goal levelled the game up to put Birmingham 2-1 up on aggregate.
Preston kept the pressure up and with the home advantage started to throw everything, including the kitchen sink at Birmingham. Then, a handball in the box by Danny Sonner gave Preston a penalty with 10 minutes remaining with the opportunity to level the tie. Graham Alexander placed the ball on the spot, the Kop end watched on in the hope he could continue his impeccable penalty record, but he rifled it against the crossbar. It was starting to look like it wasn’t going to be their day, but Preston weren’t going to give up that easy and in the 92nd-minute, they hit Birmingham on the counter-attack and Mark Rankine picked up the dropped ball by Birmingham keeper Ian Bennett to put Preston 2-1 up on the night. Deepdale erupted as they took the game into extra-time, but before the 90 minutes were up, Bennett had to pull off another incredible stop after a thunderbolt shot by Sean Gregan got tipped over the bar.
As extra-time began Preston carried on from where they left off by peppering the goalkeeping Bennett busy for another 30 minutes. However, they couldn’t find that winning goal to stop it from going to penalties. The final whistle went, and after 48 games, a piece it went down to 5 kicks of the ball each. More drama came before the shootout as Trevor Francis took his Birmingham team off the pitch due to an argument over which end the penalties should take place. This only added to the fuel and desire for the Preston team as they went into the penalty shootout.
The shootout began after the delay in front of the Kop End with a calmly taken Graham Alexander penalty, Marcelo took Birmingham’s 1st penalty which was saved by David Lucas. David Healy confidently sent Ian Bennett the wrong way for the 2nd whereas a nervous looking Darren Purse had his penalty saved, Lucas was already looking like the hero to help them to the final and when they went 3-0 with Gregans converting a penalty, it was all but settled. Birmingham did get a couple back, but the silence was deafening from the Birmingham fans. Preston’s 5th penalty and winning penalty was Paul Mckenna’s spot-kick, slammed into the bottom corner, not even the fingertips of Bennett could prevent the young Prestonian sending his hometown club to the Millennium Stadium. The Preston fans invaded the pitch as it was their first shot at the Premier League, it was an exhausting 2 hours plus, but Preston knew they had one more challenge waiting ahead.
2001 Play-off final: Bolton Wanderers vs Preston North End
55,000 fans travelled from Lancashire to the South Wales city of Cardiff for the most expensive game in world football, the prize, a place in the Premier League. Both teams started brightly and an opportunity for Preston saw Sean Gregan head the ball into the hands of Matt Clarke, but a strike from Gareth Farrelly from the edge of the box put Bolton 1-0 up. Preston had no more clear-cut chances in the 1st half as Bolton took control of the game.
In the 2nd half, North End came out a little bit more optimistic and had a few chances to level the game, although every time Bolton went on the attack a goal looked imminent. Rankine had a couple of opportunities but couldn’t finish as Bolton defended in numbers. One of Preston’s best opportunities came as they counter-attacked and Macken played on David Healy on the edge of the box, but a thunderous strike was denied by a terrific save by Matt Clarke.
As the end of the game approached Preston started to attack in numbers, but the Bolton defence did just enough to prevent an equaliser. Sam Allardyce made a more defensive approach and dropped from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 bringing on Ricketts, who had a decisive impact on the game. In the 89th-minute, Bolton took advantage of Preston’s high pressure and Ricketts finished the game off by putting them 2-0 up after taking the ball around Lucas to finish into an empty net. Hearts started to break around the stadium as the Trotters could smell the Premier League. Then, in the final minute of stoppage time, Gardner rounded up the game by putting all hopes to bed with a 3rd for Bolton.
A Championship future for the Lilywhites
It was another failed attempt at Promotion via the play-offs. After such an amazing season for the Lilywhites, it all came crashing down against their Lancashire rivals. Bolton moved onto the Premier League, with Sam Allardyce taking the club into a new era and an 11-year spell in the Premier League after their previous 2 failed attempts in the play-offs. Moyes would spend the majority of the following season at Preston before his impressive run gained the interest of Everton. It was the beginning of a new era for Preston as they established themselves as a Championship club. However, more play-off heartache was to come before they broke the curse.
End of Part 1.