When a World Cup winner led Preston North End to glory

Preston North End manager Nobby Stiles and captain Mike Elwiss on the Harris Museum balcony at the Civic Reception given to PNE in recognition of their promotionPreston North End manager Nobby Stiles and captain Mike Elwiss on the Harris Museum balcony at the Civic Reception given to PNE in recognition of their promotion
Preston North End manager Nobby Stiles and captain Mike Elwiss on the Harris Museum balcony at the Civic Reception given to PNE in recognition of their promotion | jpimedia
Two years after playing his last game for the club World Cup winner Nobby Stiles returned to Preston North End to oversee what started out as a thrilling spell at Deepdale. Author Edward Skingsley recalls that first season in his new book

It came as a real surprise even to the most ardent of fans when Nobby Stiles was appointed manager of Preston North End just three weeks before the start of the 1977/78 season.

There had been no warning of the board’s intention to move the incumbent manager, Harry Catterick, from the post into a consultancy position behind the scenes – least of all to Catterick himself.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

After informing the board that they would be contacted by his solicitors, he drove off in his PNE company car and would never darken Deepdale’s doors again. The players were pleased with the change, and happy too that Alan ‘Kel’ Kelly Snr had been appointed as Nobby’s assistant.

Manager Nobby Stiles, coaching staff and players take a break from training to celebrate their 1978 promotionManager Nobby Stiles, coaching staff and players take a break from training to celebrate their 1978 promotion
Manager Nobby Stiles, coaching staff and players take a break from training to celebrate their 1978 promotion | jpimedia

The season got off to a slow, steady start – very much as expected as the brand new management team came to terms with the job in hand. By the end of September, however, the team had drifted towards the bottom of Division Three, and some fans were starting to impatiently kick their heels.

Nobby knew exactly what was needed, but couldn’t satisfy himself that the right player was out there and, with finances as tight as ever, didn’t want to make a mistake. Matters changed with October fast approaching, when Archie Gemmill moved from Derby County to link up again with Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.

Squeezed on to the sidelines as a consequence, Forest midfielder Sean Haslegrave (pictured, inset) was now available and Nobby moved quickly to secure his services. After convincing Haslegrave to drop down two divisions, the midfielder made his debut on the first day of October against Cambridge United.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Nobby’s judgement had been impeccable and he had found his talisman. By the end of the month, North End had transformed their league position from seventh from bottom to fourth from top, and were never out of the promotion race from then on.

Crowds gather on Preston's Flag Market for the civic reception given to Preston North End in recognition of their promotionCrowds gather on Preston's Flag Market for the civic reception given to Preston North End in recognition of their promotion
Crowds gather on Preston's Flag Market for the civic reception given to Preston North End in recognition of their promotion | jpimedia

November saw the Lilywhites lose a vital home league match against Wrexham, the division’s top dogs, but ended the month with a terrific comeback win against Lincoln City in the FA Cup second round at Deepdale.

Losing 0-2 at half time, the team turned the game on its head with a stirring second half performance, winning the tie with a wonderful goal from captain Mike Elwiss just a few minutes from time.

Elwiss, along with Alex Bruce were arguably the biggest jewels in North End’s 1977/78 crown. As team captain Elwiss was an absolute inspiration. He and Bruce had no fixed positions to take up during the game, Nobby and Kel gave them a licence to roam – and to great effect!

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The powerful, hard running Elwiss would rampage around the opposition half, accessing all areas. He provided countless assists for his partner in crime, Bruce. The productive Scot would be content to play within the confines of the penalty area picking up whatever came his way, converting goal after goal for the cause.

Deepdale pitch invasion after Preston North Ends crucial 2-2 draw with Shrewsbury Town in April 1978Deepdale pitch invasion after Preston North Ends crucial 2-2 draw with Shrewsbury Town in April 1978
Deepdale pitch invasion after Preston North Ends crucial 2-2 draw with Shrewsbury Town in April 1978 | jpimedia

They smashed in 47 goals between them during the season, Bruce netting 30. They were a formidable partnership, and many opposition managers recognised that fact over the course of the season.

At the turn of the year North End stood in sixth position, nicely tucked in behind the leaders. At this point, the weather took a turn for the worse and only three league games were completed during the month, the last of those – the 5-2 hammering of Plymouth Argyle at Deepdale – taking place on January 14.

The team would not play again until February 4, a month without defeat which ended on a remarkable note as Bruce crashed home all the goals in the 4-0 demolition of Colchester United at Deepdale.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

North End ended February in fourth spot, but after the first round of Division Three games in March, the Lilywhites stood proudly at the summit as results went their way. The league was very uneven in terms of the number of games played due to the January postponements, however, and many teams still had games in hand over Preston.

Deepdale pitch invasion after Preston North Ends crucial 2-2 draw with Shrewsbury Town in April 1978Deepdale pitch invasion after Preston North Ends crucial 2-2 draw with Shrewsbury Town in April 1978
Deepdale pitch invasion after Preston North Ends crucial 2-2 draw with Shrewsbury Town in April 1978 | jpimedia

Seven league games were crammed into March, including a physically testing Easter programme of three games in four days right at the end of the month. Crucially North End didn’t fall backwards at this crucial hurdle, taking four points from a possible six and remaining unbeaten.

March ended with Preston in second place and seemingly edging into the promotion spots at just the right moment. All looked well, that is until the clock clicked around into April. The month began with the promotion battle against Peterborough United at Deepdale being televised by the BBC for their Match of the Day programme – a contest which saw the Lilywhites maintain their woeful television record by suffering a 0-1 defeat.

A win over Walsall was followed by a well-earned point at league leaders Wrexham before a thumping 4-0 home win over Lincoln City – finally laying the television bogey as the match was recorded by Granada Television – put North End well and truly back on the rails as they surged back into second place.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

With four matches left – albeit with three of them away from home – anybody thinking that promotion was already in the bag was very sadly mistaken. The next fortnight was probably the most fraught period North End fans of a certain age have ever experienced.

A single goal reverse at Hillsborough against Jack Charlton’s Sheffield Wednesday gave more strength and hope to the Cambridge and Peterborough campaigns as both clubs eased forward into North End’s shadow.

North End remained second but only by virtue of goal difference from Cambridge as they kicked off at Portsmouth on the penultimate Saturday in desperate search of two points. Thanks to Bruce and Elwiss this was achieved, and now a point clear in second place with just two games left, the impetus was back with the Lilywhites.

That was until the following Tuesday evening when, against all logical thinking, Rotherham United beat Preston 2-1 at Millmoor to blow any North End promotion hopes high up in the air.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The last thing any North End fans wanted from the match of the season at home to Shrewsbury Town were complications. But boy, did they get some. In a nervous display North End fell behind twice, the situation only brought back to par with a few minutes remaining by the brilliant Bruce.

As it happened, his 30th goal of the season is what all North End’s hopes, dreams and endeavours over the whole season hinged on. Without it, Preston would have ended with 55 points for the season.

That very precious 56th point was now carried forward to the May Day Bank Holiday as Peterborough had to go to Wrexham and win. A draw was of no use to the ‘Posh’ as North End possessed a far better goal difference of 11. Nobby, Kel, and a handful of the players made their way down to Wrexham to watch events unfold. The rest of the North End staff were back at Deepdale listening on radio and television for score updates.

It was all square at half time and – legend has it – Nobby’s hand trembling so much that he said he wouldn’t bother with a spoon to stir his cup of tea rattling steadily in the saucer.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Wrexham, despite much Peterborough pressure, heroically did their duty in the second half and the game ended goalless.

Peterborough and North End both ended on 56 points but with that important 11 goal margin between the teams, North End secured the last promotion spot behind Wrexham and Cambridge United. It was finally time to celebrate.

* Nobby’s Lads – the nigh on 400 page story of Preston North End in 1977/78 also features the reminiscences of five players from the team and is available through Amazon and will eventually be available at a later date in the PNE club shop at £14.99.

Copies are also available from the author at a special price of £11.99 via Twitter @nostalgicfootie or @northendhistory or email: [email protected]