EXCLUSIVE: JOE GARNER COLUMN
The raucous atmosphere of the Deepdale Labour Club at half-past two on a Saturday afternoon is where I experienced some of my favourite childhood memories.
Myself and my family – including my dad and younger brother – would arrive at the working men’s club shortly before kick-off when North End had a home game.
The Skeffington Road establishment would be awash with PNE shirts as supporters enjoyed a pint or two before the action got under way
I would enjoy a soft drink and a packet of crisps with my brother – then it would be time to take our seat in the Town End.
I suppose it was this pre-match ritual which firmly established my affinity with the club.
In the early days, I vaguely remember the old plastic pitch but my greatest recollections as a supporter are watching the team in the early noughties when they were a top Championship club.
I used to enjoy watching players like Ricardo Fuller, Jon Macken, Sean Gregan and Lee Cartwright.
Fuller – a striker like myself – was a particular favourite player of mine.
I remember seeing him score a fantastic hat-trick once against Burnley at Deepdale.
If I remember rightly, the game was end-to-end and we finished the match as 5-3 victors.
As a lad growing up, I dreamed of one day emulating people like Fuller and playing for North End.
For some reason, I was never picked up by North End as a junior player.
I ended up going to Blackburn Rovers as a kid and was also fortunate to play for England Schoolboys.
I went on to represent my country from Under-16s right through to Under-19s.
We played all over the world and I played alongside some top players like Theo Walcott, who is now at Arsenal.
I also came up against our own Scott Laird when England beat Scotland in the Victory Shield.
It was a dream come true for me to be able to pull on the Three Lions’ shirt as a kid
But I had similar feelings when I made my debut for Preston in January 2013 in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, although we ended up losing 3-2 to Coventry City at the Ricoh Arena.
Before I signed for Preston, I had played at Deepdale for other teams and that was always a little strange.
I had come up against PNE a few times when I was at Nottingham Forest and Carlisle – in fact one of my last appearances for the Cumbrians was at Deepdale when I scored from the penalty spot in front of the Town End.
All my family were in the stand and I remember looking at them before I took the spot-kick.
It just one of those things really. I had a job to do and I just had to get on with it.
Obviously it was always a great thrill to play at Deepdale – I’m just glad I’m now a home player rather than a visitor!
It was Graham Westley who signed me early last year and I must admit my time here did not get off to the best of starts goals-wise.
But things just clicked for me this time last season. I ended up scoring 24 goals and even merited a mention on the national news after my goal against Rotherham in the play-off semi-final first leg.
I have managed to carry that goalscoring form into this season and I have netted eight times so far.
A lot of people have asked me what has made the difference and I don’t really know to be honest.
During my barren run, I was always getting chances – it was just a matter of taking them and that’s what I’ve been doing lately.
The first few months of my time at the club were frustrating.
I got played out on the left a little bit which did not really suit me and I remember hitting the post a couple of times and having a few cleared off the line.
But I have always scored goals at this level of football and long may that continue.
The secret to scoring goals? Well, there is no secret really.
As a long as you are composed and concentrate on hitting the target, the goals will always come.
I think the players behind you also have a lot to do with it.
We have some top players here. The two young lads in midfield – Alan Browne and Josh Brownhill – are doing great.
Paul Gallagher brings a lot of quality to the team. I know how he plays and I can make runs safe in the knowledge that Gally will be looking for me.
When I’m not trying to find the back of the net, I like to spend time with my young family.
I have three young children all under the age of eight and as you can imagine it’s carnage in my house every day.
They keep me busy although my partner Sophie holds the ship together back home, which allows me to get on with what I need to do at work.
I am hoping to hit double figures for the season in terms of goals tomorrow when we welcome Port Vale to Deepdale for a League One clash.