Sixty years ago this week, Preston North End stepped out on to the lush Wembley turf for the 1954 FA Cup final against West Bromwich Albion accompanied by a combination of excitement and expectation.
Much of that expectation was on the shoulders of Sir Tom Finney, who two days earlier had been presented with the Footballer of the Year award.
The previous year’s final had been dubbed the ‘Matthews final’ after Sir Stanley Matthews had starred in Blackpool’s 4-3 win over Bolton Wanderers.
It was felt that Sir Tom could emulate his good friend’s performance – but unfortunately it was not to be.
The Lilywhites had finished 11th in the First Division, which was something of a disappointment after only goal average had come between them and the title 12 months earlier.
Sir Tom had missed a good number of games through injury in the 1953/54 season, including the three leading up to the final.
And he was not quite himself at Wembley, unable to produce the wing wizardry needed to beat Albion.
North End’s run to the final had started with a 2-0 victory at Derby in the third round, Sir Tom and Charlie Wayman scoring the goals.
Lincoln City were beaten by the same scoreline the following round, then Ipswich were thrashed 6-1 at Deepdale.
In the sixth round, Preston had needed three games to get past Leicester City.
They drew 1-1 at Filbert Street and then 2-2 in the first replay at Deepdale.
In the second replay at neutral Hillsborough, PNE triumphed 3-1 – Finney, Bobby Foster and Jimmy Baxter with the goals.
Just five days later, they played Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-final at Maine Road in front of a 75,213 crowd.
Goals from Wayman and Baxter gave them a 2-0 win and booked them their Wembley date.
Albion had finished runners-up to Aston Villa in the title race, 10 points ahead of Preston. And it was the Midlands side who took a 21st-minute lead, Willie Cunningham’s pass to Sir Tom intercepted by George Lee, who set up Ronnie Allen to score.
North End were level inside a minute, Tommy Docherty’s cross from the right wing headed home by Angus Morrison.
Six minutes into the second half, Wayman gave Preston the lead. The little striker was played clear of the Baggies defence and he ran through, rounded keeper Jim Saunders before slotting the ball into the net.
West Bromwich levelled from the penalty spot in the 66th minute, Docherty adjudged to have brought down Ray Barlow.
Allen stepped up to beat North End keeper George Thompson from 12 yards.
From then on Albion were in the ascendency and they grabbed the winner three minutes from time.
Frank Griffin cut inside from the wing, went past Joe Walton, his low cross deceiving the keeper and creeping in at the far post.
In an interview given in 2002 to mark his 80th birthday celebrations, Sir Tom said: “Losing the cup final was a big, big blow, because it was a one-off and I never played another.
“You were a very fortunate player in my day if you played in a final – they were few and far between.
“I have always felt that the cup final is all about the winners and not the losers. There is nothing for finishing runners-up. You just want the earth to open up and swallow you. It was worse because I didn’t play to my ability that day. I still can’t pinpoint why – it was just one of those things.
“Before a big game like that you should feel very excited but calm inside.
“The fact that there are 100,000 people watching doesn’t bother you one iota but I just didn’t feel up to it on the day.”
In another interview, Sir Tom recalled: “My legs felt heavy and I was running around like I had a sandbag across my shoulders.
“I was desperate to do well for the manager, the club, myself and all my family and friends who were down there that day.
“A player’s life is turned upside down by the events leading up to a cup final and the chaos in my home was indescribable.
“The telephone never stopped ringing and hundreds of total strangers got in touch in the hope of obtaining a ticket. On top of that came the media attention – by the time we came together for the trip to London I was drained.”