Memory match: Boro v PNE

Ronnie Hildersley celebrates at the final whistle after sending PNE into the fourth round of the FA Cup back in 1987
Ronnie Hildersley celebrates at the final whistle after sending PNE into the fourth round of the FA Cup back in 1987
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No Preston North End fan of a certain vintage will forget the trip to Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park on January 10, 1987.

The earlier rounds of that season’s FA Cup had brought plenty of goals.

After a 5-1 win over Bury, John Thomas scoring a hat-trick, the Lilywhites were held 0-0 at local rivals Chorley in round two, a 15,000 crowd watching on after the game was switched to Ewood Park.

It was rather more straightforward in the replay, with three more Thomas goals helping North End to a 5-0 victory on the Deepdale plastic.

But more often than not, it is quality not quantity that counts and that was certainly the case on an icy day in the North East 30 years ago.

John McGrath’s men headed to Middlesbrough for the third-round tie as Fourth Division promotion contenders, while the hosts were Third Division leaders. There was to be an upset though, ‘Rocket’ Ronnie Hildersley firing home the winner from 25 yards in a goal that has gone down in North End folklore and cemented the diminutive winger’s place in club history.

With around 2,500 visiting fans watching on, the ball was worked by right-back Bob McNeill into the path of Les Chapman and then on to Hildersley, who fired home a stunning first-half strike that belied the frosty surface.

“The game should never have been played really,” Hildersley told PNE’s official website back in 2014.

“We got up in the morning, had some breakfast, went for a walk, came back and it was pretty bad conditions.

“We thought it would be touch-and-go as to whether it might be on but eventually we got to the ground, walked out and thought it might be on.

“We got there, got out, tried out different boots and all I had was a pair of old trainers in my bag and I thought ‘I’ll try them’ and it was the best grip I’d ever had.”

As for the goal itself, the winger says it was just instinct.

“It was a split decision,” Hildersley recalled.

“I knew it came from the right-hand side and the final pass, it felt like it took ages to get to me.

“I took my first touch and my second touch was not that clever really and I just let go.”

There was to be no North East repeat in the next round, 5,500 fans heading to Newcastle, only to see Preston go down to a 2-0 defeat.

The season itself was to end in glory though as PNE racked up 90 points to get promoted, Hildersley providing the ammunition for Thomas and Gary Brazil as North End sealed their spot in Division Three.

Now 52, the Scot made nearly 60 appearances for PNE in total across two years, scoring three goals.

Despite being from north of the border, he was an apprentice at Manchester City and played for Chester City and Rochdale before arriving at Deepdale.

He had a loan spell at Cambridge while with the Lilywhites, before also playing for Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Halifax Town in England.

Hildersley finished his career back in Scotland with East Fife and Montrose, retiring in 1998.

His memorable strike provided a rare highlight for Preston at Middlesbrough.

North End have not won a league game at either Ayresome Park or Boro’s more recent home of the Riverside Stadium since November 1971.

That is a long wait and one Alex Neil’s side will hope to end on Saturday.