Smarts, doesn’t it? Relegation seemed inevitable for so long, but having coming so close to avoiding the drop, confirmation of relegation was as quick as it was sudden.Advertisement
One fact often mentioned was that North End were the longest-serving team of the Championship. That tells its own story. Football is all about taking your chances, and it can be argued Preston missed their big moment.
That big moment came in Monday, May 30th 2005. It wasn’t a big bang moment, more the wrong decision taken when the club was at a crossroads which has snowballed over the years.
That last Monday in May was Preston’s second appearance at a Play Off final in four years. Unlike Preston’s last outing there – a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Bolton – the 1-0 defeat to West Ham was a very bitter pill to swallow.
While the defeat to Bolton was disappointing, there was no denying Preston were beaten by the better team. Against West Ham, a single goal by Bobby Zamora was all that did for Preston. North End were capable of beating the West Ham side which they faced in Cardiff that day – having done so twice in the regular season.
The defeat left Preston at a crossroads: Find the money from somewhere to give Billy Davies the extra player or three he felt he needed to get over the final hurdle into the Premier League, or opt for prudence and hope that Davies got his team to overachieve again.
North End plumped for the latter – and chucked some extra obstacles in the way. Over the course of the 05/06 season key members of that 04/05 season left. There were incoming players, of course, but in hindsight, none could be argued to be of such quality that they dramatically improved Davies’s options.
North End once again reached the play-offs, but lost to Leeds in the semi finals. Davies was soon on his way, moving to Derby. It’s impossible to say if Preston would have done better had Davies stayed, but for the sake of a bit of extra cash, could Preston have crossed the finishing line into the Premier League?
In some ways, North End’s board had been very lucky in the years leading up to Davies’s departure. There had been some brilliant talent spotting of young players were nurtured, developed and, generally, sold on. Signing up Paul Simpson, a lower league manager with the brief to keep that trend for finding the gems in the rough made sense in theory, but it was a far from guaranteed strategy.
The big name departures continued: Chris Lucketti, Claude Davis, Tyrone Mears and David Nugent were among the stalwarts of the Davies era to depart, and North End were banking on replacing them with undiscovered battlers – something many other clubs were doing as well.
Yet with the exception of one or two – such as Sean St Ledger – few players turned into the jewels which had gone before them. At the same time, Preston seemed not to realise the value of what they already had. Losing Graham Alexander in a row over the length of his contract extension is the best example of this. North End’s loss was, certainly, Burnley’s gain.
Simpson, along with Alan Irvine who followed him, didn’t just bring in young gems, they also brought in some well-known names. Neil Mellor, for example, and Richard Chaplow.
Maurice Lindsay, now chairman at Preston, points to some of the deals done in this period as massively expensive for Preston. Mellor, knocking the goals away for Sheffield Wednesday this season, is still having his salary paid in part by Preston at a time when the wallet was empty for Phil Brown to strengthen in January.
In hindsight, it feels as though there was a degree of consistency until the end of Davies’s reign: Preston didn’t, generally, sign big names. They fought hard to keep players. Under Simpson and Irvine, the picture is less clear, and if you listen to Lindsay, some of the salaries offered were out of Preston’s league.
It goes without saying that Darren Ferguson’s signing was a mistake for Preston. Irvine’s run of results, while disappointing, never felt to be quite sacking material at the time. Preston were 16th at the time of Irvine’s dismissal. They ended the season in 18th. 12 months previously, they had made the play-off semi finals under Irvine, losing to Sheffield United.
Of course, financial concerns around Preston, and the very real threat of administration when the taxman came calling, deflected attention from the poor results under Ferguson. The start of this season was no better – not winning in the league until the end of September.
Yes, there were victories in the League Cup, but the collapse against Burnley, going from 3-1 up to lose 4-3 after Billy Jones was sent off in the 78th minute, should have been a sign that something was up. A fortnight later, Preston’s 6-4 win at Leeds might have been pulsating, but it was still another four goals leaked.
Preston’s final mistake was waiting so long to send Ferguson on his way. The results long before the late December dismissal suggested Ferguson wasn’t able to find a solution to the leaky defence.
Many fans had written the season off by that point and although it took more than 10 games for Phil Brown to pick up a win, signs of improvement emerged. Prior to that first win, Preston were picking up points. Seeing the ball in the back of the Preston net didn’t lead to the team capitulating, and you sensed the team was developing a sense of belief.
That until last week North End had got themselves to within four points of safety is an achievement in itself. That everything nosedived so quickly was something of a shock.
Brown says he takes the blame for the relegation. That’s noble, but wrong. North End had several years of being lucky with managers and young signings – but the policy of banking on over-achievement several years ago has left Preston clinging on in the Championship for over a year.
Relegation is painful but it does offer Preston the chance to rebuild a different way. Hopefully, it means the wage bill Lindsay mentions frequently will be knocked on the head once and for all.
Brown said that the rebuilding begins now. The team which starts for Preston next season must be one which wants to be there, and one which won’t give up. It’s one which needs to mix youth and experience – at the moment, Brown is emphasizing young pros, and that is a little worrying.
A season as a big side in League One also provides the chance to build bridges with Premier League teams keen to loan out their younger players. For Brown in January, selling a team staring relegation in the face as a good experience for a young Premier League was always going to be tough. Players of the quality teams like Aston Villa and West Brom have passed around this season could make all the difference at Preston.
Preston’s plight can’t be put down to any one decision, but it’s a situation which has become inevitable as one bad decision piled on top of another. Slipping into League One should be a chance to wipe the slate clean – but those in charge at North End need to make sure they make the most of that chance.
David Higgerson is a Preston fan and a former sports journalist for the Preston Citizen.