Great Football League Teams 43: Preston North End 2000-1
Last week, it was announced that a certain Scotsman would take the reins at England’s biggest club come August. David Moyes’ record at Everton has been called into question by the more arrogant among Red Devils’ fans but his supposed unfamiliarity with real achievement can be further rebuffed with recourse to his astonishing six year sojourn at Preston – taking a club that had been recently in danger of relegation from the 92 to regular contenders for Premier League football. Here, Jo Breen looks back to a pivotal season in that famous period.
As the 2000-1 season began, Preston North End fans found themselves in an unexpectedly sunny Grimsby chanting ‘Preston are back! Preston are back!’
After 20 years in the wilderness PNE were finally playing second tier football again. The team appeared on the pitch, a number of them sporting newly shaved heads, and the rumour on the terrace was that a pledge had been made to donate huge amounts of money to charity if hardworking midfielder, Mark Rankine (who, in spite of his excellence in midfield, frequently froze in front of goal) managed to get 10 goals that season. Things went North End’s way that day and the team marked its first match back at this level with a 2-1 win, with goals from Manchester United old boys Jon Macken and Michael Appleton.
The previous season had seen North End get to the fifth round of the FA Cup and win the league in their second full season under highly-esteemed manager David Moyes. Meanwhile, players like Graham Alexander, Sean Gregan, Michael Jackson, Paul McKenna, Jon Macken, Mark Rankine and Appleton had established themselves as firm favourites among the PNE support.
In spite of the usual debates around whether the squad which had won the lower division had it in them to go up a notch, Moyes had shown faith in the team that had taken Preston up; playing eight of the men who had started in the last game of the previous season in the match against Grimsby. The staff list was largely unchanged.
North End’s first home game in the division saw 13,948 witness a 3-0 win against Sheffield United. Crowds hovered around the 13-14,000 mark as Preston comfortably held their own in their new division. Away, the team was a little shaky but good home form saw them pick up further wins against Pompey, Palace, Norwich and Tranmere (though the Tranmere result was bittersweet in that the match saw Steve Basham’s leg broken, arguably stunting the career of the Hampshireman).
There was no doubting that the biggest game of the early part of the season was Fulham away. Fulham, backed by Al-Fayed’s millions, were riding high in the league, having won all of their first eleven games. An away trip to Craven Cottage was looking like a daunting prospect, although the Cottagers’ recent draw against Wolves in the league gave the whites some heart. In the middle of the second half a Michael Appleton goal put Preston in the lead and much nailbiting ensued as the visitors fought off siege upon siege to win the game. A fan commented on the internet ‘Have you noticed that lately PNE are doing all the things other teams used to do and you wished it was us?’
In spite of taking only one point off North End in their illustrious season, Fulham did go on to win the league. This was a frustrating prospect for a North End team who had had them as adversaries in a championship race just two seasons previously. No matter how much heart Moyes’ lads had, they couldn’t compete with all that money. And sadly, one team with ludicrous amounts of money generally means one less promotion place for the teams that are doing it the hard way.
Around Christmas North End succumbed to a classic David Moyes slump, of the kind that he also managed to inflict on Everton from time to time. These perhaps serve as a needed reminder that, footballing genius he may be, but he is only human and once his team hits a tough patch it takes a while to get back out. Over the festive season, defeats against Gillingham Grimsby, Sheffield United, Bolton, Stockport, Blackburn and Wimbledon were lifted only by a solitary win against Wolves.
However, Moyes had reliably dipped into the transfer market and gotten hold of striker David Healy, whose goal tally, when added to that of Jon Macken, lifted the hearts of the fans. Hence, pretty soon, North End were back to their winning ways and after a cagey win away at Fratton Park at the beginning of February the whites won 11 of their remaining 18 games, losing just three.
The last home game of the season saw North End fans, their team safely ensconced in the play-offs, celebrating David Moyes day by wearing kilts, tam-o-shanters and Moyes masks, thoughtfully provided by the Lancashire Evening Post. Meanwhile the West Brom support had donned beachwear to watch their team go down 2-1 to Preston. The result hardly mattered as both teams were already play-off bound.
The first leg of the post season at St Andrews saw PNE beaten 1-0 by Birmingham City. It was a big blow to Preston, but it wasn’t beyond reasonable hope that the deficit could be overturned.
Back at Deepdale, tickets were massively oversubscribed. Not only was this probably North End’s biggest game in about a quarter of a century, but the Town End had just been knocked down, leaving the accommodation reduced to three stands.
David Healy put the whites ahead early, before Geoff Horsfield pulled one back for the Blues. The TV footage panned to a celebrating Jasper Carrott. If it stayed this way Birmingham were through.
About ten minutes from time, Preston were awarded a penalty and the crowd breathed a sigh of relief. Preston fans had become used to the luxury of having a penalty taker who almost never missed (the general consensus seems to be that at the height of his career Alexander had converted 73 out of 80 attempts). The Scotsman stepped up to take possibly the biggest spot kick in the history of Preston North End … and fluffed it.
The minutes ticked by and it was looking increasingly like North End were going out. But then, from out of nowhere, Mark Rankine – the man who couldn’t score — did just the opposite – PNE had earned a reprieve.
Extra time came and went and then up came penalties. Drama ensued as Trevor Francis insisted that his team would take the kicks in front of the demolished town end stand. When Moyes and the police vetoed this, Francis took the extraordinary step of marching his players off the pitch, before relenting. Preston won 4-2 to crown a monumental night of football.
After this, the play-off final against Bolton was something of an anticlimax as Preston added to their tally of play-off traumas with a 3-0 defeat. The next season saw Moyes leave, closely followed by Gregan and one-by-one the players who had made the previous two seasons legendary broke away. Granted, 2000-1 garnered no actual honours for the Lilywhites, but it was a fantastic ride.