The Big Interview: Mark’s debut goal etched in stone

Mark Walsh used to play in midfield for PNE and now runs a property management company
Mark Walsh used to play in midfield for PNE and now runs a property management company
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The memories are slightly hazy more than 30 years on, but Mark Walsh still remembers the size of the stones and bricks being hurled towards him on his Preston debut.

Just 18-years-old at the time, the Bamber Bridge lad was thrust into the North End team on the opening day of the 1981/82 Third Division season – the first game of Tommy Docherty’s ill-fated reign at Deepdale.

If making your first appearance for your hometown club was not daunting enough, Walsh had to contend with the hostile atmosphere of Millwall’s old Den ground.

The home supporters certainly lived up to their fierce reputation after the youngster marked his debut for PNE by scoring.

As Walsh prepared for the re-start of the game, he suddenly became aware of a number of missiles heading in his direction.

“My debut for North End was away to Millwall of all places,” Walsh recalls.

“I remember hitting a shot from about 35 yards and it was heading straight for the corner flag until it took a wicked deflection off the back of someone’s head.

“The ball flew into the net and all I remember was being back on the halfway line dodging all the bricks and stones which were being thrown at me from the Millwall supporters.

“I think that goal put us 1-0 up, but we went on to lose 2-1.

“I was playing as a winger – Tommy put me in on the wing even though I was a midfielder really.

“I remember standing out wide and all these stones and bricks came flying towards me.

“So you could say my debut was an eventful one.”

Walsh, now aged 53, admits being in the starting XI for the opening day of the campaign was a major surprise to him.

Having only graduated to the professional ranks after serving a two-year apprenticeship, the last thing he expected was to be facing the Lions.

“I did not expect to play at all,” he said.

“In those days, the manager used to pin the team sheet up on the wall in the dressing room before the game.

“My name was on there and that was the first I knew about it.

“Was it daunting making my debut away at Millwall?

“Not really. I was just a young lad – 18-years-old.

“I was just told to go out and play football – you don’t find anything daunting at that age.

“You just run around and try your best. You’re not really intimidated by anything.

“I remember playing my first game for the first team in a pre-season friendly against Bohemians in Ireland.

“I must have done okay because I ended up getting put in on the opening day of the season.

“Even though I scored on my debut, I got dropped to the subs’ bench for the next game – Halifax away in the cup at The Shay.”

In total, Walsh made four starts and six substitute appearances during that first season – the majority of which all came under Docherty, who was sacked after just 23 games in charge.

He had presided over just three league wins and left with PNE firmly in the relegation mire.

“I liked Tommy – he gave me my debut for Preston,” said Walsh, who is dad to Katie (20), Luke (18) and Hannah (15).

“A lot of the other lads did not like him because he kicked a lot of them out. He got rid of half the team and brought a load of new players in.

“Obviously, he didn’t last long as manager – I think he got sacked after three months, but I have got good memories of Tommy.

“Some of the things he did were probably not the most professional, but I found it fun to play under him. I remember when we used to train at Willow Farm, there was an ice cream man who used to come up and watch us in his van.

“I scored once in training and Tommy came up to me and said, ‘Right you’ve scored, now go and get an ice cream’.

“Personally, I can’t really say anything negative about him.

“He did not have the best of times at North End as a manager, but as a young lad to be given my debut by him, I will always be grateful.

“He wanted us to play attacking football and I always remember him saying, ‘If you pass it back to the goalkeeper, I’ll take you off’.”

A former pupil of Walton-le-Dale School, Walsh got picked up by North End when he went to watch his older brother John play for the Lilywhites A and B teams.

“How it all came about was my brother got scouted by North End,” Walsh added.

“He was two years older than me and I used to go and watch him train at Lowthorpe Road every Tuesday and Thursday.

“I think I was about 13 and I got asked If I wanted to join in, so I did.

“Brian Pilkington used to be the coach. I still see Brian now in Leyland. He played for Burnley and England.

“Brian just got chatting to me and that’s how it all started.

“He asked me if I played and when I said yes, he said you might as well join in.

“I had been playing schoolboy football, but I never got picked for Preston Schools or Lancashire.

“It just goes to show that you don’t have to play for the town team or the county because I don’t think any of the players who got picked for the town team went on to become a professional, but I did.”

In his second season at Deepdale, Walsh featured more regularly, making 27 appearances under new manager Gordon Lee.

Over the next two years, Walsh became a prominent member of the first-team squad, but North End continued to struggle – just managing to stave off the threat of relegation in both seasons.

When Lee was sacked in 1983, legendary goalkeeper Alan Kelly, who had served the club as a player in the 1950s and 60s, was his replacement.

In total, Walsh featured more than 60 times for his hometown club and remembers scoring the winner in a 3-2 with over Southend.

He also played in a famous 2-1 FA Cup victory over Blackpool during the 1982/83 season at Deepdale.

One match which particularly stands out in the memory bank for Walsh was a visit to Scunthorpe United two days after Christmas Day.

North End had hammered Port Vale the previous game 4-0 and then thrashed the Iron 5-1 at the Old Showground.

Striker Steve Elliott struck a hat-trick and gave the home centre half – a certain Ian Botham – the runaround.

“I remember Botham playing in that game,” said Walsh, who nowadays runs a property management company Mark Walsh Estates, in Plungington Road.

“He wasn’t a very good player – it was a good job he was good at cricket.

“I remember him being this big guy – bigger than what I thought he would be.

“We went into the bar after the game and he had this presence about him. There was something about him.”

In the summer of 1984, Walsh was released by Preston after struggling with a mystery illness, which was eventually diagnosed as an overactive thyroid.

“It was a couple of years after I left North End that I found out I had a thyroid problem,” Walsh said. “I used to be a runner, that was my game when I played. I was a box-to-box midfielder.

“But it got to the stage when I could not run around a pitch without sweating really badly.

“I don’t blame North End for not finding out what was wrong with me. They sent me to doctors and specialists, but I left not knowing what the problem was. I eventually had my thyroid taken out and it allowed me to carry on playing non-league football.

After a stint playing in New Zealand, Walsh went on to play for Morecambe, Accrington Stanley and Darwen before hanging up his boots aged 39.

He has turned out for North End legends in the past and almost volunteered his services at the recent veterans’ game against Blackpool last Sunday at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium – a match which PNE won 2-0.

“I went along to watch and they didn’t have a sub – I would have played,”said Walsh with a smile

“But I have great memories of my time at Preston. I lived the dream for six years.”