It’s hard to believe that I’m actually here.
I’m walking along Deepdale Road on a seven-degree day in January. Giant light towers and modern grandstands loom above the surrounding terrace houses. The lights are on despite the fact it’s only two o’clock in the afternoon.
Back in the mid-eighties a couple of mates encouraged me to take an interest in English soccer. One of them supported Liverpool and the other Manchester United. I started to watch the First Division highlights every Monday night. While it would never supplant AFL footy in my affections, I did learn to appreciate it.
But who should I barrack for? I didn’t want to go for one of the big four – Man U, Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea. I wanted something a little less clichéd.
At the time I lived in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. Wasn’t there an English team called Preston? I scanned the league tables in the paper and located them. Languishing in last place in the fourth division. They’ll do, I said. I looked up Preston in the atlas and discovered it was a town in Lancashire just north of Manchester. My mates were aghast, urging me to follow a club that might actually get on the telly sometime, like West Ham or even Ipswich. But I stuck with Preston.
I started to follow their fortunes. At the end of the 1985/86 season they had to re-apply for their position in the Football Association after finishing second last in the bottom tier. They were faced with dropping back to a lower competition and having only semi-professional status. Fortunately, they survived. But it was only when I began to research the history of the club that I understood the full magnitude of what had befallen them.
Preston North End was one of the foundation clubs which formed the Football Association in 1888. They remained undefeated in the 1888/89 season, winning the League/FA Cup double. Nicknamed the Invincibles, they won the League title again in the following year. For the first eighty years of the Association the Lilywhites were a fixture in the first, or at least second divisions. An article one day in the Melbourne Herald revealed that an Australian, Joe Marston, had been recruited by the club from Sydney’s Leichardt in the fifties. Joe played over 200 games, captained the team and became the first Australian to play in an FA Cup Final in 1954.
Preston last played in the top division in 1960/61.Their fall from grace mirrored the decline in the wealth generated by the cotton industry and manufacturing in general in the post war period. Rival clubs were able to outspend them. But the biggest factor in their downturn was the retirement at the age of 39 of their greatest player, Sir Tom Finney, a local lad born in St. Michaels Road just a few hundred metres from the stadium. Along with Stanley Matthews from Blackpool, Sir Tom was considered the greatest player of his generation and was idolised by the fans.
Preston provided me with plenty of interest over the years. David Moyes, Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor as manager of Manchester United, played with Preston when they won the League Two title in 1996 and was manager when they topped League One in 2000. He almost took them back to the Premier League in the following season, only falling at the last hurdle in the promotion play-off against Bolton Wanderers. They nearly did it again in 2005 when they went down to West Ham at Wembley.
After a few lean seasons with managers coming and going through a revolving door and a massive turnover of players, Preston finds itself back in League One. But things are looking up. They’re in fourth place on the table at the half way point of the season and quietly confident of playing off for promotion to the next level , the Championship.
Preston has been playing at Deepdale, named after the district of the city where it has its home, for 136 years, longer than any other English club has played in one place. The stadium seats 23,000, having been redeveloped in stages between 1996 and 2009.
Sir Tom Finney is 91 years of age and still resides in Preston. To this day he is revered by the people of this city. The road in front of the stadium is called Sir Tom Finney Way. There is a statue with a water feature called The Splash, recreating a famous picture of Sir Tom outplaying three Chelsea defenders and sending a spray of water into the air as he lunges at the ball. A huge portrait adorns the exterior of the stand that bears his name, where I take my seat.
Today the Northenders meet seventh-placed Port Vale. Unlike most soccer clubs, Port Vale is not named after a place. The club hails from Burslem, one of the six towns comprising Stoke-on-Trent. It was formed at a meeting at Port Vale House in 1876. The Valiants won promotion from League Two last season by finishing third and winning their play-off for the last spot in League One.
The teams last met in November at Vale Park. Preston won 2-0, but had to achieve it in unusual circumstances. There was an off-the-ball incident involving Preston striker Joe Garner in the thirteenth minute. The referee mistakenly red carded his Australian teammate, Neil Kilkenny. Preston therefore had to play with ten men for the remainder of the match. Garner scored twice. The referee realised his error at the end of the game and filed a report to the Association. Despite favourable evidence from Port Vale Garner was suspended for three matches.
I must admit that apart from watching soccer on television, I have only attended three games in my entire life. Australian football is my first love. I saw Preston Makedonia play Melbourne Croatia at the Connor Reserve in Reservoir, West Ham against a Victorian eleven at Olympic Park and Melbourne Victory opposed to Wellington Phoenix at Etihad Stadium.
Being the north of England, everybody sounds like extras from Wallace and Gromit. In fact Nick Park, who created the characters, hails from Preston.
The first thing that strikes me is how small the field is compared to AFL grounds. Of course I’ve seen plenty of soccer pitches in my time, but I’ve never actually been inside a purpose built soccer stadium. The surrounding stands seem to compress the dimensions of the playing surface. Spectators are never far from the action.
The players from the competing clubs warm up on the pitch before leisurely strolling back into the change rooms with only ten minutes to go before the first whistle. When the teams return to start the game a lot of them applaud their fans.
The visiting Port Vale supporters are placed in their own area and are completely separated from the home fans, filling the middle section of the Bill Shankly Stand behind one of the goals. They are extremely vocal. It might be something to do with their regional accents, because I can’t understand a word of what they are saying. Nevertheless, even though they are vastly outnumbered they make more noise than the Deepdale faithful. There’s one thing that I do understand. They are targeting Joe Garner over what took place in the previous clash between the teams.
Soccer is a game where the team in possession attempts to weave its way through a maze of opposing defenders, midfielders and forwards, who have all dropped back to get in their way and harass them. If they can’t find a way through they transfer play to the opposite side, or pass back to the goalkeeper before starting again, usually with a long kick to a contest near the centre. Of course, what teams will try to do is to regain possession and catch the opposition out with a fast break into open space.
But how exciting is it when your team puts one in the back of the net? Just before half time the much maligned Joe Garner heads in a cross from Lee Holmes. I am caught up in the euphoria of the moment with everybody else in the stands. I swear that Garner looks right at me as he runs along the sideline in celebration.
I know that without a big screen I have to watch proceedings very closely, because there are no replays. After Garner scores I realise something else. There is no scoreboard. So anybody coming late to the game won’t know the state of the match unless they ask a fellow spectator.
At half time the subs from the opposing teams spend the whole time completing drills on the field.
Things grow more exciting in the second half. Paul Gallagher takes possession near the centre of the pitch before launching a stunning 25-metre drive that leaves the visiting keeper without a prayer. Preston 2 Port Vale 0. Then a header from Ian Hume is knocked down by the goalie, Gallagher taps it to Garner in the box, who pauses just long enough for me to yell “Here we go!” This makes it 3-0. How good is this for a first-time experience! But in the round ball code with its scarcity of scoring, you’re never too far away from getting yourself back into the game. Port Vale’s Gavin Tomlin pounces on a cross and sends it home. Preston 3 Port Vale 1. With only six minutes to go substitute Jordan Hugill takes advantage of a long throw-in from the boundary to pop it through a mass of defenders. Preston 3 Port Vale 2. The visiting supporters are in full voice again. It’s just like watching the footy at home. You think you have it won but are forced look on in consternation as your foes threaten to steal the game from you at the last gasp. From sitting back and enjoying a dominant performance I now have to endure a close one where Preston might squander a seemingly insurmountable lead.
It starts to rain. Ten thousand home supporters greet the news that there will be five minutes of extra time with howls of outrage.
Preston manage to hang on. I don’t hear the referee’s whistle to end the game, but everybody else appears to.
It’s already dark at five o’clock. I’m part of another football crowd descending the concrete steps at the back of the stand, crossing the carpark and emerging onto Deepdale Road. The footpath is congested and cars are banked up. All the talk is about Preston’s good fortune in hanging onto the three points.
I reckon I might call into that curry house on Church Street for dinner before heading back to my hotel on Fishergate Hill.