Day Preston North End fell out of the big time

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Sixty years ago this week Preston North End’s last spell in the old First Division came to an end in dramatic fashion as local historian Keith Johnson recalls

It is 60 years since Preston North End were relegated from the top flight of English football, but their supporters still dream of a return.

The 1960/61 season was the first post-war season without the legendary Tom Finney to inspire them and they started with three straight defeats.

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Things did improve as the season progressed, but as Easter approached they were in a fight for survival. Visitors to Deepdale the week before Easter were Leicester City, who had just booked their place in the FA Cup final, and North End managed to hold out for goalless draw against them.

Preston North End team of 1961 which was the last time the club featured in the English top flightPreston North End team of 1961 which was the last time the club featured in the English top flight
Preston North End team of 1961 which was the last time the club featured in the English top flight

It meant North End began the holiday period hoping for a miracle of their own as they languished at the foot of Division One. On Good Friday they gave their hopes of survival a boost with a 3-2 win over Manchester City at Maine Road, where the home side missed two penalties and Johnny Fullham, David Sneddon and Alex Alston with a penalty scored for North End to take them off the bottom of the table.

Unfortunately, they were dumped back at the bottom a day later when table topping Tottenham gave them a 5-0 thrashing at White Hart Lane.

Easter Monday did give them a fresh glimmer of hope when Manchester City visited Deepdale for a morning kick off watched by 25,000 spectators. Despite trailing to a Baker goal scored in the 62nd minute North End rallied and finally got their reward with time running out as a John Wylie header beat City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann to earn PNE a precious point. Such was the delight that a pitch invasion by PNE fans took place at the final whistle. Unfortunately, defeats by 2-1 at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers and by 1-0 away to Aston Villa left them in serious trouble.

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A goalless home draw against fellow strugglers Bolton Wanders followed and as the season drew to a close local rivals Blackpool and North End found themselves in a three-way fight with Newcastle United to retain their First Division place.

PNE keeper Fred Else in action earlier in the 1960-61 season against FulhamPNE keeper Fred Else in action earlier in the 1960-61 season against Fulham
PNE keeper Fred Else in action earlier in the 1960-61 season against Fulham

On the penultimate Saturday of the season, April 22, 1961, Blackpool had to visit Birmingham City, Newcastle were at home to Bolton Wanderers and North End entertained an in-form Manchester United.

Preston’s form had certainly improved and their plight was mainly due to a failure to win a league match from mid-October until the second Saturday in February.

Before the vital round of matches Blackpool had 30 points, Preston 29 points, and Newcastle 28 points. Manchester United brought a large following to the match, swelling the gate to more than 18,000. With 10 goals in the previous two games, United were given a rousing reception when skipper Maurice Setters led them out. Winning the toss, United gained the advantage of the breeze, with Preston attacking the Town End in dull weather.

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United’s Bobby Charlton (pictured inset) and Albert Quixall in particular were conspicuous with their imaginative touches. Interchanging was part of their plan and one such move led to the first goal after nine minutes. Quixall neatly worked an opening on the left flank, placing a pin point pass to the elusive Charlton who, unmarked in the inside right position, scored with a fast rising right foot shot.

PNE manager Cliff BrittonPNE manager Cliff Britton
PNE manager Cliff Britton

Four minutes later United got a second, a slick pass from Mark Pearson found Setters some 20 yards from goal and, with a crisp shot, he left PNE goal keeper Fred Else floundering. It was a shocking start for a team needing every point and news that Blackpool had gone ahead at Birmingham caused much disquiet on the terraces.

The experience of United defender Bill Foulkes made it hard for young midfielder Garbutt Richardson but he kept plugging away and after half an hour North End were back in the game.

Alex Alston cut in from the right and his cross was only partly cleared, running loose to Peter Thompson in the penalty area. He instantly rammed in a cracking left foot shot which beat United keeper David Gaskell completely as it soared into the roof of the net.

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Spurred on by their success North End pushed United back again and in the 35th minute their fans were celebrating. Alston swung over a corner kick, David Sneddon glanced it sideways and Richardson rose majestically to beat both Foulkes and Gaskell with a perfect header into the corner of the goal.

Peter ThompsonPeter Thompson
Peter Thompson

It was Richardson’s first goal for Preston and the new centre forward was prominent as North End made attack upon attack. Then in the last minute of the half a quick interchange of the ball from the left wing to the right led to Setters shooting from a narrow angle. To his delight, the shot struck the far post and rebounded into the net.

During the interval rain fell heavily making the surface greasy. Preston renewed their attacks with enthusiasm and excitement took possession of both sides, causing mistakes and leading to futile bunching.

Several times the United inside forwards were crowded out by sheer determination not to surrender another goal while Manchester United were clever in snuffing out the points of danger, the slim dark haired Shay Brennan looking like a fine full back in the making.

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As the half progressed United looked more dangerous and North End had difficulty making headway into the penalty area. Setters was playing a captain’s role for his side, one minute in defence, then next in attack. He almost completed his hat trick when he screwed a shot across goal with Else off the line.

Whenever North End got moving a couple of red shirts seemed to be on hand. Richardson with his path blocked, saw a pass back to a colleague stick in the mud. Then Charlton hit a low hard drive wide of the mark. Johnny Giles, with a rising oblique shot, caused some anxiety but Else brilliantly saved the effort.

North End were under pressure in the closing stages and with just four minutes to play Charlton broke from midfield and unmarked he sent a cross shot past goalkeeper Else to complete the scoring and secure victory for United.

Bobby CharltonBobby Charlton
Bobby Charlton

As the Preston players returned to their dressing room the other vital results came through. Newcastle had trounced Bolton Wanders by 4-1 and more importantly, Preston-born Bruce Crawford, had scored Blackpool’s second goal in a 2-0 win at Birmingham.

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Preston North End were doomed to relegation and their proud years in the top division were over. Unlike previous occasions this one would be of lasting duration. Blackpool lived to fight another day. With two points separating them and Newcastle they knew a final day draw would ensure safety.

On the final Saturday of the season, the Seasiders entertained Manchester City and despite a two goal deficit at the interval, they rallied to earn a 3-3 draw. Newcastle meanwhile were winning 4-2 at Blackburn in a vain attempt to avoid the drop.

As for North End a 1-1 draw away at Bolton Wanderers condemned them to bottom place in the First Division. Ironically, the Manchester United side which played Preston on that fateful day included two players, Charlton and Nobby Stiles, who would in turn in the 1970s, become manager of Preston North End.

Unfortunately, neither of them was able to restore the side to the division from which they vanquished them. And playing for North End in the crucial encounter was Frank O’Farrell, who would a decade later be a short lived manager of Manchester United.

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That summer brought to an end Cliff Britton’s five years as PNE manager. The former Burnley and Everton manager took over at Hull City in July, 1961 being in charge of that team for eight years before becoming their general manager, a position he led until his retirement from the game in October 1971. Brittan’s best season with Hull City was 1965-66 when the club won the Third Division title.

PNE’s progress through the 1960s is featured in Keith Johnson’s book ‘Preston In the 1960s‘ published by Amberley priced £14.99.