Preston North End and the Compensations of New Towns
Today we welcome When Saturday Comes author Jo Breen, a former season ticket holder at Bohemians 1905 in the Czech Republic and the first Preston North End follower to write for this site. On Saturday, Jo made the trip from her home on the Grand Union Canal to witness Graham Westley’s return to the club which he did so much to build:
Since moving to Milton Keynes I’ve found there are some towns where I’ve been to see North End play (Coventry and Leicester, for example) that previously I’d not really thought were particularly glamorous. Yet viewing the world through my newly-acquired MK-tinted specs gives these places a whole new glow (‘Wow! they have old stuff here! Wow! A road with a quaint little bend in it’ etc.). Stevenage is not one of these places. Stevenage is like Milton Keynes but slightly older and much shabbier. And it doesn’t help that the football ground is stuck out of town near a soulless retail park. Though in fairness, Roaring Meg has to be the best name ever for an out-of-town shopping centre.
The last time North End came to the Lamex was Easter Monday, a match that had been billed as something of a grudge match after boss Graham Westley had abandoned Stevenage in favour of Preston the previous January. That game had been a damp squib in more ways than one, coming at the beginning of this summer’s spectacular three months of solid rain. The most exciting thing about that 1-1 draw had been counting the number of balls that disappeared over the stadium roof (nine).
This time around it was a cold, but thankfully dry, November day and Preston were fielding an almost completely new team, with only Bailey Wright remaining of the eleven that started the game last April. Summer saw Graham Westley start to stamp his mark on the squad, getting rid of all but three players from the side he inherited from Phil Brown.
Although Westley hasn’t exactly captured the hearts and minds of the North End faithful (we’re looking at a fan base here who want every manager to live up to the legacy of David Moyes), the general feeling on the terraces seems to be that he’s doing a decent job. One of the things I’ve been impressed with is the fact that he’s brought in several players from lower levels and given them a chance at this one – and, for the most part, they’re hungry for it. I’m particularly glad to be reunited with Stuart Beavon and Jack King, who I used to watch play at Didcot Town when I lived there (yes, I live in all the glamorous places). Beavon was a particular hero of mine, having scored two goals in Didcot’s triumphant FA Vase final in 2005. (My own personal triumph as a Didcot follower came in a match when I got to hold the team’s tube of Deep Heat for the entire first half!)
Beavon repays my faith in him with a strike in the 6th minute that silences the noisy home stand to our right. Nine minutes later though, there’s a goal in front of the away terrace with Greg Tansey putting the home side level. It’s early days and I haven’t yet felt cause to start biting my fingernails, although Stevenage’s big number nine, Marcus Haber looks very menacing and I’m getting frustrated at the ease with which Jeffrey Monakana (usually great at running with the ball) seems to be going down every time a Stevenage player comes near him.
On the whole though, North End are not put off by the equaliser and play well, passing nicely. This cool-headedness pays off when King, the second half of the ex-Didcot duo, scores in in the 32nd minute and North End hang on to go in 2-1 up at the break.
In the second half Monakana gets a third for Preston and then Nicky Wroe makes it four after a spectacular series of passes just on the edge of the box. Stevenage, an impressive 3rd in the table at the start of the game, are made to look decidedly average by 10th placed Preston.
The North End faithful have me giggling at their decision to spend the second half randomly shouting ‘Arnold! Arnold! Arnold!’ at the Stevenage goalkeeper Steve Arnold who is in goal in front of us. This is a welcome break from the other chants (‘we are superior’ and ‘easy! easy! easy!’) that make me cringe inwardly. I’d like to think the embarrassment this causes me is down to my egalitarian impulses, but really I’ve seen North End grab spectacular defeats from the talons of certain victory too often to celebrate before the final whistle has well and truly blown.
It’s blown soon enough though and I have my own personal celebration at having notched up my 52nd away win with North End. A friend who supports Oxford United has bet me a three course slap-up meal that I won’t equal his record of 60 away wins with my team before the age of 42 and I’m running things a little close to the wire. A 4-1 win is just what I need to get things back on track.
As the North End players come to clap us after the match I feel a little nostalgic for the good old days. Surely my memory isn’t deceiving me when I say that I’m sure the players used to come closer to us than the four or five steps our side of the halfway line they seem to manage these days?
We file out and I spot some long-standing internet supporter friends at the back of the terrace who greet me with their thumbs up and invite me for a drink in the nearby ‘Our Mutual Friend’ pub. Some kindly Stevenage fans congratulate us on the score as we head into what is in fact a pretty decent hostelry. I’m assured the Church End Juicy Fruit beer really does taste like Juicy Fruit chewing gum, but it sounds just too weird so I settle for an excellent pint of Oakham’s JHB. Amusingly, the toothless barmaid assumes that the half pint is for me, the female, rather than Jim, the driver, and we have to do some swapping around.
When we get there, Stevenage station is full of Arsenal fans returning from a 3-3 draw with Fulham at the Emirates and we check the table to find that frustratingly all the teams just above Preston have also won and we are still in tenth position.
It’s heartening to see Preston goalkeeper Steve Simonsen casually chatting to a bunch of fans on the train back to London and it kind of (but only kind of, mind you) reminds me that there are small compensations to be had from going from being a team challenging for the Premiership in 2009 to being mid-table nobodies in the third tier in 2012. You feel much more part of the team when you’re sitting in a stadium that’s squat enough to loose balls over the roof or standing in a train carriage with a guy who can simultaneously be your hero and an ordinary down-to-earth guy. I wonder if any of those Arsenal fans milling around in Stevenage station have ever felt that?
For more on football and new towns, check out our view on the subject from earlier in the year.