As Bad As Things Got: Preston North End, 5th November 1985
On New Year’s Day 1980, Preston North End seemed set pretty fair. The team, which had been promoted from the Third Division in 1978, was sitting in 11th place in the Division Two table, having comfortably beaten local rivals Blackburn Rovers on Boxing Day. By the end of the season, they were in tenth place in the final league table, with their biggest problem throughout the closing weeks of the season being an inability to kill games off. From the start of March, they went on a twelve match unbeaten run. The problem was, though, that they only won four of those twelve matches. Those eight dropped points would have lifted Preston to within two points of a return to the First Division for the first time since 1961.
The early 1980s were a difficult time for all football clubs in this country, but few felt the pinch more than those based in the game’s original industrial heartlands. Preston North End had been the first English champions in 1889 with an unbeaten record that remain be the only unbeaten Football League or Premier League season played out in this country until Arsenal matched it 115 years later, but these traditions counted for little against a backdrop of ever decreasing attendances, the malaise that years of neglect and hooliganism had wrought upon the game and broader economic depression. Burnley, Bolton Wanderers, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Derby County were amongst the other founder members of the Football League who came close to extinction throughout the decade.
For Preston, that tenth place finish in Division Two in 1980 would turn out to be as good as things got for two full decades. Former England international Nobby Stiles had been in charge of the club since 1977, but his time as Preston’s manager drew to a close in the summer of 1981 after the club was relegated from Division Two in 23rd place in the table. His replacement was another Manchester United legend, Tommy Docherty, but the Doc couldn’t improve their fortunes and by December 1981 he’d left the club as well, to be replaced by the former Everton manager Gordon Lee. Preston finished the 1981/82 season in 14th place in Division Three.
Life back in the third tier, then, was turning out to be a huge challenge. Attendances had averaged just over 12,000 for the 1978/79 season, when Preston had finished in 7th place in Division Two. By 1984, this figure had fallen by almost two-thirds to just over 4,500 and they finished the season in 16th place in Division Three. The club might even have gone to the wall completely during this season, only to be rescued by a fundraising campaign which raised £250,000 to keep going. Gordon Lee left the club five days before Christmas 1983, to be replaced by the former Ireland goalkeeper Alan Kelly.
After a second successive 16th placed finish in Division Three in 1984 the wheels fell spectacularly off the wagon the following season, but this didn’t start immediately. By the end of the day on Tuesday 18th September Preston were in second place in the table, having won four of their first five matches. The first signs of problems came a week later, under the surface of an otherwise creditable 3-3 draw against First Division Norwich City. Four days later, they lost 6-4 at Plymouth. The secret was out. Preston’s defence had a heart of jelly.
The Plymouth result was the first of eight successive defeats in all competitions, during which they conceded 29 goals, including six at Norwich in their League Cup second leg, and four goal on three successive occasions, at Lincoln and Bolton, and at home against Bradford. And as the team plummeted down the Division Three table, the financial problems of the previous couple of years started to worsen. Crowds had fallen to below 4,000, and the first team squad was looking increasingly threadbare.
Alan Kelly, a one club man who’d played almost 450 games in goal for Preston, finally resigned in February 1985, with Preston by this time third from bottom in the table. They’d conceded 59 goals in 25 matches, by far the worst in the division, and win the FA Cup they were knocked out at home in the Second Round, 4-1 at home by non-league Telford United.
Tommy Booth stepped in to replace Kelly with Brian Kidd as his assistant, but they couldn’t really steady the ship. Preston North End finished the 1984/85 season in 23rd place in the Division Three table, and were relegated to the Fourth Division for the first time in their history. They’d conceded exactly 100 goals in the league alone, the only time they’ve ever achieved this unwelcome milestone in 132 years of League football. In the cups, they conceded 20 goals in six matches, two of which they won and two of which they drew, while crowds had averaged just 3,793, the lowest in the club’s history.
The summer of 1985 brought little relief to a club that looked set to buckle under a conflation of different problems. The end of the 1984/85 season had brought the Bradford fire, which led to a sudden (and frankly unexpected) round of ground safety reviews. The club had spent quite heavily – £500,000 – on improvements to Deepdale in 1978, when promotion to the Division Two brought the ground under the remit of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act, so Preston were by far from the worst hit club (another founder member of the Football League, Wolves, found Molineux reduced to just one stand that summer, and terrace and stand closures were common across the Football League), but additional money did still have to be spent on further changes, and the capacity of Deepdale was cut from 25,000 to 19,500.
The new season started as the previous one had finished. Preston lost 4-2 at home to Peterborough United on the opening day of the season, but it was a mixed start. A 4-0 win on the first Saturday in September against Torquay United was followed by a 6-0 loss at Northampton Town three days later. A fresh depth, however, was plumbed the following month when Deepdale’s floodlights were condemned. Preston had been fairly early adopters of floodlights, first getting them installed in 1953, but they needed to be replaced, and the club couldn’t afford to get the work done quickly and easily.
Kick-offs were brought forward to 2.00 as the nights started to draw in, and then earlier, to 1.30. Every weekend was filled with matches that would have been scheduled for midweek being shifted to any available free date. By Bonfire Night, though, they couldn’t escape it any more and their home league match against Scunthorpe United had to be scheduled for two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, the 5th November 1985. Just 2,007 people, the lowest home league attendance in the club’s history, turned out to watch. Scunthorpe won 1-0.
The match has, however, gone down in Preston folklore, and for one Preston player that day it was a particularly special day. Mel Tottoh was a reserve team part-time player working for British Aerospace when he got a phone call from Brian Kidd, who explained that a combination of the early kick-off time and a flu outbreak had left Preston short of players, and asked whether could he play for them that afternoon. Tottoh cycled 11 miles home to get his kit and then on to the ground, where he took his place on the substitutes bench, coming on for the 18 year old Mark Rodgers in the second half. Rodgers had also been plucked from the reserves, and this was also his only match for Preston North End.
By New Year’s Day, Preston were in 23rd place in Division Four, with only the floundering Torquay United below them. Since the Scunthorpe match, Preston had won one in nine, a record which included losing 7-3 at Walsall in the First Round of the FA Cup. At the end of January, Tommy Booth resigned as manager, and Brian Kidd took over. Kidd’s first match as the manager of Preston came four days after his appointment, a second midweek match that had to be scheduled for an afternoon kick-off, and with 768 people turning out to see them beat Bury 2-0 in the Freight Rover Trophy in absolutely pouring rain.
Brian Kidd lasted nine game as the manager of Preston North End. That win against Bury was the only win of this nine, and he only took two points from the other eight matches. On the 18th March 1986, though, some degree of normality returned to the club with the introduction of the new floodlights for a Tuesday night match against Cambridge United. They’d cost £60,000, but there was no party atmosphere at Deepdale that night. Cambridge won 2-1, in front of a crowd of 2,738. There were protests outside the ground after the match. The result left Preston bottom of the League, five points adrift of Torquay United having played three games more. The Cambridge match turned out to be Kidd’s last in charge of Preston.
Midfielder Jon Clark was given the manager’s job until the end of the season on the 22nd March, and by the 4th April Preston were in 22nd place in the table, with his team having won his first five games on the bounce in the space of just 13 days. They were now five points from safety with five games to play, but from here on their season fell apart. With just two points from their final five matches they ended up in 23rd place in Division Four. Preston North End, the very first winners of the Football League 97 years earlier, would have to apply for re-election at its AGM in June.
Preston lined up alongside Exeter City, Cambridge United, Torquay United, and the winners of that year’s Gola League, Enfield. Exeter City topped the voting with 64, Preston came second with 62.5, Cambridge and Torquay came joint third with 61 votes each, and Enfield came last with a meagre 7.5 votes. In truth, there was little doubt that Preston would survive. Enfield were a relatively small club with low attendances, even though this was the second time they’d won it in four years.
And regardless, it had already been agreed that automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and the now rebranded GM Vauxhall Conference to start the following year. It seemed unlikely that anyone would be voted out in the last year before this little piece of meritocracy was finally introduced. And all this is before we consider how unlikely it was that other Football League clubs would vote one of the league’s founding twelve members out in the first place.
Preston were safe, so Jim Mcgrath, who had spent four years as the manager of Port Vale between 1979 and 1983, was appointed as the club’s new manager. The biggest change of that summer for Preston, though, was coming at Deepdale, with the installation of an artificial surface – the en-tout-cas type, as favoured by Luton Town – at a cost of £300,000. Being able to hire it out would bring valuable extra revenue into the club, and Queens Park Rangers, who’d had one since 1981, had been successful with theirs, reaching the FA Cup final, getting promoted into the First Division and holding their place there, and even qualifying for Europe since getting theirs installed.
Preston North End finished the 1986/87 season promoted as runners-up to Northampton Town, and by the time of McGrath’s departure in February 1990 they were settled a division above, although they had a brief spell back there in the 1990s after the team stalled under John Beck, whose agricultural style of football was singularly ill-suited to the club’s plastic pitch. In 2001 the club reached the second tier for the first time in 20 years, but the Premier League continues to elude Preston North End, and it’s now been 60 years since English football’s first champions have played in its top division. The artificial pitch that had helped to steer the club to safety was ripped up at the end of the 1993/94 season.
The eleven remaining founding members of the Football League all survived their various crises of the 1980s (the original Accrington FC folded in 1896 – Accrington Stanley are not direct relations of this club), and even four decades on only one of them, Notts County, has fallen out of the League. But while the re-election episode of 1986 was never likely to lead to Preston North End leaving, it was a timely reminder of the vulnerability of all English clubs at that time. Preston North End survived it, as did Deepdale, their home since 1878. The glory days will never return to this club as they were when the Football League first began, but they’re still with us and in far better health than they were for much of the 1980s.