Wembley one year on: Agony to play-off ecstasy

North End celebrate the play-off final victory
North End celebrate the play-off final victory
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The mood among Preston North End fans going into the play-offs last year was downbeat.

Automatic promotion, so long on the cards, had eluded the Lilywhites on a sorry final afternoon of the season at Colchester.

A 1-0 defeat to the U’s had seen MK Dons pip them to second place and consign PNE to a 10th go at the play-offs.

The previous nine had all ended in failure, hence the lack of appetite this time.

North End manager Simon Grayson knew he had only four days to get his players ready for the play-off semi-final first leg at Chesterfield.

Preparations started as the team bus drove through Essex on the way to the airport.

Grayson said: “Having been that close to automatic promotion and seen it slip away, I don’t think I had ever felt that low after a game before.

“That feeling had to disappear quickly, I did the post-match press and got on the bus to go back to the airport knowing I had to pick the lads up.

“Before we got to the airport, I stood up on the bus and what I said to the players was a bit of a rallying call but also a plea to them to believe in themselves.

“I wanted them to believe that what they had been doing were the right things and 
that one result should not change our outlook and mentality.”

The words hit home, North End beating Chesterfield 4-0 on aggregate over the two legs.

And so the preparations for Wembley began.

They had two weeks to wait, the semi-finals having been played earlier than usual.

Training was moved to Deepdale, with the pitch marked out to the same size as Wembley.

The build-up was kept low key – after missing out on automatic promotion, going to Wembley was all about getting the job done rather than a jolly-up in the capital.

North End’s players got two visits to Wembley to get used to the surroundings.

The first time they had the place to themselves, the next day they watched the first half of the League Two final between Southend and Wycombe.

On the day itself, there were no selfie sticks in sight, the pre-match routine like any other.

The front of the white shirts bore no reference to the occasion, the one nod to the play-off final being the Football League’s artwork on the sleeves.

North End got the job done, they were fair too powerful and streetwise for Swindon.

They allowed the Robins possession to a point but once the ball crossed the half-way line, PNE were on to them.

After four seasons away, they booked their return to the Championship in some style.