Every fan with Preston North End in their bones should be eternally grateful that John McGrath accepted the board of directors’ offer in June 1986 to take over the reins of the ailing club standing on the edge of extinction.
A tough old style centre half for Bury, Newcastle United and Southampton, he turned out to be the most perfect managerial fit North End could have wished to find; old school, focused, no nonsense, communicator, motivator, psychologist, thinker, tactician and, of course, humorous.
A common theme that runs through any interview with a player from the
McGrath years was that it was, ‘the happiest time of my career – and we saved a famous football club from
going under, too.’
“We have caught it before it died,” was one resonating phrase among many of his which sums up the story of the dramatic regeneration of the famous old club.
Silver-tongued McGrath knew how to sell the impossible – after all, what player in his right mind would want to go to Preston North End in 1986, a club unravelling by the week? Well he knew a few, and moulded them together – not as 11 mercenaries, but as a team.
Deepdale became a happier place in which to ply your trade. Banter and laughter made it ‘the best dressing room I have ever known” – according to Frank Worthington – and he had known a few!
This contentment began to be reflected in the results, and the confidence of the team grew rapidly. Throw in a couple of decent cup runs to finance finishing touches of quality to the team and, from New Year onwards, North End’s promotion quest was unstoppable.
There was the occasion, just before the team ran out at Southend, when McGrath told the players, “I’m told we have something called
‘panache’. Don’t worry, I’ve spoken to the doctor and we’re all having an injection next week to cure it.” North End turned in arguably their best half of football under McGrath in the 45 minutes following that quip, going in at half time 0-2 ahead – a great example of how to relax players when they are tensed up before a crucial match against their closest rival.
Stories and quips abound about this larger than life character, but Sam Allardyce once revealed he witnessed the only time McGrath was actually lost for words.
After a training session on the artificial surface, he asked Frank Worthington what he thought the difference was between grass and plastic. “Dunno John,” he said. “I’ve never smoked plastic.”
The enjoyment of being part of this new era at Deepdale under McGrath certainly created a unique bond
between himself and the playing staff. After viewing a clip recently of his goal way at
Rochdale on social media from that special season, Gary Brazil commented: “Big John McGrath gave me a hug when we got into the dressing room afterwards; it meant the world to get his recognition.”
Those words give a real insight into how management and team had become one during that fantastic season in which they were attempting to drag North End back from the very edge of extinction.
Devoid of McGrath, Preston North End would almost certainly have continued their freefall out of the Football League and struggled to return to full status as Deepdale decayed around them and the debts got bigger.
There had been a succession of poor decisions made at board level for several years and those past mistakes had come home to roost in the early 1980s. After the dramatic events of 1985/86 when the club were essentially teetering on the brink, bold, brave decisions had to be made – and thankfully they were. It needed resolve in the boardroom, and resolve on the pitch.
McGrath supplied the latter.
After seasons of misery, the regular North End supporters sensed things were moving in the right direction with ‘the new North End’ when they managed to avoid defeat until the middle of
Playing a pleasing brand of football rather than the ad hoc style of the previous season – which had led the club to the undignified position of having to seek re-election to the Football League – North End slowly began to build their crowd base back up from the 3,500 hardy souls who would never give up on their team. By the end of the season the average was
beyond 8,000 per game.
League form was up and down until late November when Gary Swann arrived from Hull City. His move,
financed by good runs in both the league and FA Cups, was to prove pivotal.
Making his first full league appearance in mid-December, significantly North End would not lose another league game until March 21.
He was the final piece in the team jigsaw, running midfield, fetching and carrying for John Thomas and Gary Brazil who scored 70 per cent of the team’s goals during that season, making them one of the most formidable striking partnerships the famous old club has ever known.
This undefeated streak basically set up North End’s promotion tilt, and they gradually chased it down with four matches still left to play on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Orient’s east London ground. A late winner from Les Chapman – his one and only goal of that memorable season –the emotion of which took him, as we all now know somewhere 53 miles west of Venus, saw to it that the coach ride home was a memorable one.
There was so much more that happened in this fantastic season, among which was a nail biting home win over champions-elect Northampton Town at Deepdale in front of over 16,456 fans, the Frank Worthington goal against Wolves, and the home game against Tranmere Rovers just a couple of days following the win at Orient, which turned into a long night of celebration and homage to McGrath and his team.
This wasn’t simply any old promotion that happens during the lifetime of a club. This was very special. This was the defining season that shook North End awake from the coma it had slipped into and kick-started the resurgence of what we see before us today – a proud football club performing well in the Championship and set within the latest fantastic incarnation of Deepdale.
Quite simply, this would not have happened without John McGrath.
Thank goodness he caught Preston North End before it died.
* Back from the Brink by Edward Skingsley chronicles the whole of the memorable 1986/87 season and will be available, priced £13.99, from www.amazon.co.uk and the Preston North End club shop .