PNE fans’ panel’s John Roper reviews the season

Preston skipper Tom Clarke lifts the League One play-off final trophy at Wembley Stadium

Preston skipper Tom Clarke lifts the League One play-off final trophy at Wembley Stadium

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A grand total of 63 competitive games that started way back on August 9 at Deepdale finally ended at Wembley Stadium on May 24.

No doubt that it will be the 63rd game that people remember for many years to come, and rightly so.

But there were one or two more memorable moments along the way.

In the League Cup we only made it to round two and a respectable exit away at Middlesbrough who, consequently, proved quite a force in the Championship.

In the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy we almost made a glamour final against Bristol City but, unfortunately, lost a two-legged Northern final against Walsall with one of the poorest performances of the season away in the second leg.

It was so bad that people were calling for the manager’s head and to add insult to injury it was followed by a shocker of a defeat at Crawley the following Saturday.

The FA Cup, however, provided much relief to North End and after overcoming a banana-skin tie on TV at Havant and Waterlooville in the first round, we saw off Shrewsbury at Deepdale in round two in a rather low key affair.

A superb 2-0 win against Norwich saw us draw the old foe Sheffield United in round four.

A draw at Deepdale didn’t quite seem to be enough and when the winners of the replay drew Manchester United at home it looked like a case of what might have been.

No one will convince me otherwise that the 3-1 win in the replay at Bramall Lane changed our season around and set us on the path, ultimately, back to the Championship.

United came in front of the TV and a sell-out crowd, and for 18 minutes we were dreaming as a Scott Laird shot beat David de Gea and North End were in the lead against the three-times champions of Europe.

Unfortunately we conceded three goals, all of which had degrees of dubiousness about them, but that is history now and a gallant six-game FA Cup run ended in glorious defeat on a Monday evening in February.

So we move on to the league, and the 46-game programme, which became 49 in the end.

We only lost seven games all season in the league and when you think two of those were against Crawley and Colchester then it just shows how consistent we have been.

The fact that we drew too many at home is probably the real reason why we didn’t finish in the top two and not the heart-breaking defeat at Colchester on the last day.

There were, of course, some great wins along the way, particularly at MK Dons and at Ashton Gate with the famous fightback against Fleetwood one of the highlights of the Deepdale fixtures.

Five points clear with five games to go would surely be enough but a home draw against Gillingham, and a 2-2 draw that seemed like a defeat at Port Vale, saw us just one point clear of MK Dons with two games to go.

We thrashed a weakened Swindon team at home, while MK did their bit, and so it all came down to the last game.

Preston at Colchester and MK at home to already-relegated Yeovil. I think we all knew Dons wouldn’t slip up and they didn’t.

But oh what a hash we made of it in Essex. It just didn’t happen for us on the day and with a 3,000-plus following and the home side missing a penalty we still couldn’t make our superiority, on paper at least, tell.

The U’s scored late on and it was another 265 mile journey home feeling like we had blown it again.

But Sunday soon became Thursday and off we went to Chesterfield.

It was the home side’s big chance and in spite of some continuous pressure particularly in the second period and the antics of their manager Paul Cook, we gained the advantage with an early Jermaine Beckford goal and came back to Deepdale one up.

On the Sunday, 15,600 saw North End sail through to the final winning 3-0 and Beckford scored one of the goals of the season from 45 yards.

Wembley beckoned and there was an almost hourly update on the number of tickets sold.

The fact that we had blown it nine times before and suffered play-off heartbreak at Rotherham just 12 months earlier probably didn’t help, not to mention the ticket prices and the rail engineering works.

In the end, 24,000 made it to the national stadium and boy oh boy where they given a 
day they are never likely to forget.

Grown men hugging each other in tears, dancing in the aisles, whole families rejoicing together because we hadn’t just broken the play-off hoodoo, we had buried it.

It finished 4-0 and Beckford was the hero with a superb hat-trick by a player who could still do it in the top flight given the right management encouragement.

It was a fabulous journey back as we left north London about 9.30pm, having supped enough ale to sink the Titanic.

My head was hurting on Monday morning but I didn’t care, I was pinching myself and trying to make sense of the fact that just 24 hours earlier I had seen a Preston captain lift a trophy at Wembley Stadium.

That moment will live with me for the rest of my life.

So it’s back to the future for North End with a return to the Championship and much work already being done in preparation for next season.

Six players have left the club and we wholeheartedly thank all of them for their efforts in raising the club out of the wilderness and back on the football radar.

Clearly we need to get the three loan players signed up as quickly as possible for Sam Johnstone, Beckford and Paul Gallagher were integral parts of the promotion squad.

Season ticket arrangements have already been announced and there is no time to lose because it will be Saturday, August 8, before you know it.

If anybody who has fallen by the wayside is thinking of buying a season ticket, do it!

Owner Trevor Hemmings says the club will go forward and be “competitive” in the Championship – and we all need to be a part of it.