After David Moyes left the club, former Scotland Manager Craig Brown took to the helm at Deepdale. He spent 2 years at the club and held on to some important players like Healy, Alexander and Cresswell as well as making some great signings in Eddie Lewis and Brian O’Neil. However, the performances on the pitch weren’t coming off for North End, and after 2 years in charge with 12th and then 15th place finishes, Brown left by mutual consent, which was the beginning of another rollercoaster few years for the Lilywhites.
2004-2005: The Billy Davies Generation
As another Scottish manager left another one came through the door. Billy Davies was a young manager who came from Motherwell after taking them to the brink of European Football. He had impressed enough for Preston to believe he was the man to take them on the next step to the Premier League and after a fantastic start to the campaign he soon became a fans favourite. Deepdale became a fortress and Preston had one of the best home records in the League. This helped Preston reach the play-offs for the 1st time in 4 years.
They came up against Derby County in the semi-final with the 1st leg at Deepdale. Preston started the game positively with Nugent, Cresswell and Eddie Lewis all peppering the goal in the early stages. Nugent managed to slice through the defence to put North End 1-0 up in the 1st half. The youngster who had signed from Bury earlier in the season was becoming a real star at the club and had settled in so well in the Championship.
The 2nd half saw Derby have a couple of failed attempts but it was Nugent who continued to run the show throughout the game. It was Richard Cresswell though who doubled the lead in the 90th minute with a bizarre goal that slipped through the hands of Lee Camp. They held their own fate as they went into the 2nd leg at Pride Park. Confidence was sky high and Preston felt ready for the challenge.
In the 2nd leg, North End went to Derby and executed their game plan perfectly, absorb pressure, defend in numbers and hit on the counter-attack. Derby piled on the pressure but Preston continued to take everything that was thrown at them with the help of some incredible saves by Carlo Nash. The Rams had a real opportunity to open the tie up late on from the spot but Rasiak hit the post and saved Preston from a nervy ending. Another Play-off final secured and another opportunity to head to the Premier League.
Play-off Final 2005: Preston North End vs West Ham United
After West Ham beat 3rd place Ipswich there the 2 legs, North End would face a team they had already beat twice that season. With the confidence in knowing they won both games, it felt like it was almost destiny for them to go on and complete promotion this season. They had the strongest squad North End had seen in a long time. The team were playing at their highest ability and the North End fans travelled down in their tens of thousands to the Millennium Stadium to get behind the boys.
However, the game remained stalemate throughout the 1st half and West Ham looked the more dangerous going forward. It was on the hour mark in the 2nd half when Bobby Zamora put West Ham 1-0 up. It was starting to look like DeJa vu for Preston fans, after seeing us fall at the final hurdle again. Preston would have to regroup and hope they can hold on to their star players as another season of Championship football was on the cards.
2005-2006 Play-Off Semi-final 1st leg: Leeds United Vs Preston North End
Billy Davies began his 2nd year in charge at Deepdale and there was only 1 aim, promotion. North End had a wobbly start to the campaign but after a 22 game unbeaten run in the league, they managed to secure their best finish in the league since 2001. Preston were a tough team to beat and had only lost 6 games all season, only 2 of them being at home.
We came up against Leeds in the play-off semi-finals and our first leg was away at Elland road. the fierce rivalry between the two clubs made it an even more exciting occasion. The North End fans travelled in their thousands. It was a sea of yellow shirts and inflatables as we turned it into a party atmosphere. Cresswell, Lewis, Healy and Gregan were all playing for Leeds at this point, Leeds had an era of poaching Preston players, this all added fuel to the fire.
Preston started strong in the 1st leg, David Nugent was back from a lengthy injury and started brightly. Going into the game Preston were the leagues inform team and at the start of the 2nd half Nugent scored a wonderful solo goal in front of the travelling fans to put us 1 step closer to another final. However, with 15 minutes remaining of the 2nd half it was an Eddie Lewis free kick that saw Leeds equalise. A goal we’d seen before when he wore the Lilywhite of Preston. It was all level going into the return leg, but after the fine home form that season, Billy Davies believed it was all within their hands.
2005-2006 Play-off Semi-final 2nd leg: Preston North End vs Leeds United
It was anyone’s game as we went into the 2nd leg. It was a midweek tie and Deepdale was sold out. Leeds played a very physical game preventing North End from scoring on home soil and keeping the referee busy all game. 10 minutes into the 2nd half Rob Hulse found the end of a corner to head Leeds 1-0 as the defence was caught napping. Only 5 minutes later their lead was doubled by Richardson after some more questionable defending.
It was a frustrating game as Leeds physical approach kept the game from moving. Stephen Crainey for Leeds saw red, which gave Preston 20 minutes to take advantage of the extra man. Leeds racked up an impressive 8 bookings, former North Ender Richard Cresswell kicked the ball away in the 90th minute only to receive a 2nd yellow putting Leeds down to 9 men for the remaining stoppage time.
Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, Leeds were only the 3rd team to come to Deepdale and win that season, it was all over, but this time we knew it would be for longer as teams sniffed around Billy Davies, the man who had turned Preston’s fortunes around and got us so close to the Premier League. Another disappointing end to what was an amazing season.
Billy Davies left the club for Derby County in the summer of 2006, in came Paul Simpson, we managed to hold onto Nugent for another season. However, after the previous failed play-off campaigns we finished 7th, missing out on the play-offs by 1 point. Billy Davies took Derby County up that season via the playoffs after finishing 3rd, which was a bitter blow to take. However he found out life wasn’t sweeter on the other side, after falling out with the board, he left Derby in November after a bad start to their Premier League campaign. Paul Simpson was given another shot at Preston, but after a bad start to the following season after losing key man Nugent, Simpson was relieved of his duties at Preston. Alan Irvine was hired who guided us easily to safety that season.
Irvine took charge of his first full season and aimed to get Preston back on track after a disappointing 15th place position the previous season. After an up and down season a late surge saw Preston finish joint 6th with Cardiff, same points and goal difference, the decision went on goals scored. Preston had scored 1 more than Cardiff, it was quite a shock to see us make the top 6 this season, but after smashing Cardiff 6-0 with only 3 games to go and making it in by the skin of our teeth felt amazing.
We would play Sheffield United who finished 3rd, our rivals Burnley finished 5th, so the prospect of a PNE Vs Burnley final was beautiful, we could only dream though, as our final Championship playoff campaign once again ended in defeat.
It started off so well in the home tie, an early Sean St Ledger goal put us 1-0 up. But 21 seconds into the 2nd half Brian Howard equalised for Sheffield United, the match remained at a stalemate so it went down to the tie at Bramble Lane. However we never really turned up and we were outplayed in the 2nd leg eventually losing 1-0 after a Greg Halford header put the Blades into the play-off final. Little did we know at that time, there were darker days ahead.
2009-2011: A downward spiral
The following season started off well and looked as though we could have had another shot at promotion, but after an awful run of games with only 1 win in 10 matches spanning from the end of October to the end of December, Alan Irvine was sacked by the club, he was later replaced by Darren Ferguson who only just saw us safe finishing 17th. However, in the 2010-2011 season a drastic start saw Ferguson sacked in December, being replaced by Phil Brown, and along with some questionable signings over the past couple of seasons, attendances dropped, performances got worse and relegation beckoned. The only positive I could think off at the time was seeing Hume do his best to keep us up, but unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, and we were relegated to League One for the first time since the turn of the century.
2011-2013: Relegation and Life in League One
Phil Brown remained manager but after a poor start to our first season in League One he was fired before Christmas, David Unsworth and Graham Alexander took charge for 5 matches taking us into the new year and with 2 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss, fans were hopeful that they remained on until the end of the season, but the board hired Graham Westley, and the season ended poorly finishing 15th. Wesley stayed at the club for just over a year, and in his first full season in charge the club decided he was only going to take the club down after a string of poor performances, so another managerial change came. In comes Simon Grayson.
Grayson took charge and guided us to safety, in the summer he immediately started his recruitment to turn our fortunes around. Over the 4 years he had at the club he made plenty of important signings including Joey Garner, Jordan Hugill, Jermaine Beckford, Tom Clarke, Greg Cunningham, Daniel Johnson, Callum Robinson and loanees Sam Johnstone, Jordan Pickford and Aiden McGeady. In his first full season in charge, he guided us to 5th and gave us a chance of promotion back to the Championship.
2013-2014 Play-offs: Preston North End Vs Rotherham United
Deepdale was buzzing again after a fantastic season. In the first leg Rotherham took an early lead, inside 20 minutes. But Preston came back out in the 2nd half and responded immediately with what I can only describe as the best goal I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Tom Clarke put a pinpoint cross from the halfway line directly onto the chest of Garner who was a few yards outside the box, tracking sidewards his 2nd touch was a dink of a lob over the incoming Rotherham defender who was only left to watch as he volleyed the ball into the far top corner of the goal. An absolutely stunning goal to get us back level, worthy of winning a game at any level. However, the game remained 1-1.
In the 2nd leg, it was another star signing by Grayson, Paul Gallagher who put us into an early lead with one of his dangerously wicked free kicks from 35+ yards that dropped into the box and bounced into the top corner without anyone to touch it in. Rotherham reacted quickly though and turned on the pressure with 2 goals in 10 minutes. A 3rd goal in the 2nd half all but ended our dreams of promotion that season, but we could look back at such a positive year and know, the following season, was going to be our year.
2014-2015: Promotion on its way!
A great season saw us battling out top spot with Bristol City and MK Dons, after a blip over January, a fantastic run with the help of strike duo Garner and Beckford saw us unbeaten from February all the way to the final game of the season. Bristol City had won the league a couple of games earlier and it was between North End and MK Dons for the final automatic spot. Preston had the advantage in being 2nd and only needed to match MK’s result by ideally beating Colchester who were fighting for survival. MK were playing Yeovil who had long been relegated.
Final Game of the season: Colchester United Vs Preston North End
It was sold out as the Preston fans travelled down south to see their team promoted and the Colchester fans turned up to hopefully see their team avoid relegation. Preston had the best of the opening play but the game stayed in deadlock. Colchester won a penalty, Porter sent the ball high over the goal as it started to look like no team would break through. MK Dons were cruising at Yeovil so Preston only needed 1 goal, but every time they attacked, Colchesters defence threw everything at us to prevent us scoring. In the 82nd minute, Colchester hit Preston on the counter-attack and George Moncur finished sweetly putting the ball into the far bottom corner with no chance for Johnstone.
As the game came to an end and North End slipped to 3rd, another play-off campaign was looming, it was surrounded by more frustration as our history in the play-offs was evidently awful. In the league we could beat anyone on our day, we even gave Manchester United a run for their money in the FA Cup fifth round. However, as we’ve seen before nothing is certain in the play-offs.
We came up against Chesterfield in the playoffs and in the first leg at the Proact stadium, North End took an early lead with a 6th minute Jermaine Beckford goal. Every time we attacked we looked dangerous and Beckford almost doubled the lead before the break with a bicycle kick. However, the game finished 1-0 and Chesterfield were still well and truly in the tie as we went into the home leg.
2014-2015 Play-Off Semi-final 2nd leg: Preston North End vs Chesterfield
All the odds stood in our favour, 1-0 up after the 1st leg, at home with Deepdale behind the team. Chesterfield started stronger though with a couple of early opportunities. The Preston defence stayed resolute with the aim being a trip to Wembley followed by Promotion back to the Championship. Preston struck first with a half-volley over the keeper from Beckford after Joey Garner flicked the ball on. From then on in we took control of the game by the scruff of its neck.
In the 2nd half, Preston won a penalty after Daniel Johnson was tripped in the box just after the hour mark. Joey Garner stepped up and confidently put North End 2-0 on the day and 3-0 on aggregate. The Preston supporter had all but secured a spot in the final. Before the day was over Beckford had one more point to make, he struck the ball from the halfway line beautifully putting it into the top right corner with no chance for goalkeeper Joe Murphy who came in on an emergency loan. Beckford immediately went to celebrate with manager Simon Grayson. What made this more special is what he came back from. Earlier in the year Beckford suffered from Labyrinthitis, an inflammation in the ear which made him unable to stand or even sit up in bed. His miraculous recovery, hard work and determination helped him get back out on the field doing what he does best and rounding up the result was just what he deserved. PNE went through to the final to face Swindon in what would be a curse-breaking game.
2014-2015 play-off final: Preston North End vs Swindon Town
The trip down to Wembley started off with a dirty burger and a few cans of cider on the coach down. I thought I’d need them going of our previous record. We arrived in London around 1 pm. Walked around Wembley, caught Jeff and the boys updating us on the final day of the premier League season before we moved inside and got comfortable with a pint. The occasion was breathtaking, Wembley was a true Arena with brilliant views all around. North End fans outnumbered the Swindon fans. However, both clubs had the same aim, promotion to the Championship. We sat in the first tier on the angle in-between a side stand and a stand behind the goal. The game soon came around, I felt sick and anxious, it was the line-up I expected to see and it only took 3 minutes for North End to settle my nerves.
An inswinging cross by Gallagher was met by man of the moment Beckford to put it past the keeper to put us into an early lead. Only 10 minutes later the lead was doubled when another cross was this time met by Paul Huntington, Prestons Cumbrian Cannavaro. 2-0 up after only 13 minutes, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing but certainly didn’t take the lead for granted. The atmosphere was electric, all the Preston fans on their feet singing and backing the team all the way. Swindon couldn’t get into the game, then before halftime Beckford made it 3, he turned on the defence, opening up a gap as he sweetly curled the ball out of the reach of Foderingham. 3-0 before halftime, the promotion party could finally begin.
Halftime came and after a top up of cider, I was ready to carry on the celebrations. North End carried on their bombardment on the Swindon goal as more chances came. Then just before the hour mark Beckford broke through and gently put the ball past Wes Foderingham for his 3rd of the day and Prestons 4th. A man in his 60’s broke out in tears next to me as we all celebrated together, this is what it meant to the fans, after so much heartache and disappointment. The game remained 4-0 and the sound of the final whistle was the best feeling I’ve ever had. We finally broke that curse and for the 1st time. We got to see Preston promoted via the play-offs. It may not be the FA Cup or the Champions League, but after a long hard season, it was everything we deserved. Finally back in the Championship, finally winning a play-off final and finally back on track for the ultimate goal, bringing Premier League football to Deepdale.