Preston North End - the Brian Ellis years, part one

After more than 30 years with the Lancashire Evening Post, Preston North End reporter and chief sports writer BRIAN ELLIS has moved on to pastures new. In the first of a two-part feature, Brian recalls his days covering the Deepdale club.

If football is a rollercoaster then watching Preston has to be the Big Dipper.

I climbed off unsteadily last weekend after an undulating ride which took me from over the moon to sick as a parrot and back again at almost clockwork regularity for 18 nerve-shredding years.

Two championships, seven play-off disappointments and one solitary relegation made it a journey of towering highs and gut-wrenching lows.

Yet for all the ups and downs I wouldn't have swapped it for a gold clock – well, okay, maybe just one season in the top flight.

Twice Preston took us to the doorstep of the Premier League and twice this East Lancashire lad, brought up a Clarets fan but converted to a North Ender, was every bit as gutted as the locals when the door slammed shut in our faces.

Bolton and West Ham made it up instead and are still there harvesting all those millions a year in TV money.

My old club Burnley have gone up this time.

But, as Graham Alexander assured me on the eve of Wembley, it has got to be PNE's turn next year.

The journey began for me on May 11, 1991, my debut game was also the last of the season, a 2-1 win over neighbours Wigan Athletic at Deepdale in the old Third Division. Predecessor Paul Agnew had just made a shock switch from poacher to gamekeeper, joining the club after seven years of reporting on it.

Ronnie Jepson scored the winner that day after coming on as a sub.

And my first ever PNE report – on a wild west theme, I recall, with Big Ronnie cast in the role of gunslinger – was penned in a quiet corner of the nearby Sumners pub, a hostelry I remained loyal to on match days for the entire 18 years.

The first full season ended in a nondescript 17th place in the table but it still had its moments for the new boy, like a 5-4 Rumbelows Cup victory over Scarborough at Deepdale and an FA Cup meeting with top-flight side Sheffield Wednesday.

On the way to that third-round match Preston had to overcome non-league Witton Albion and, after an early scare, did so with a stunning three-goal salvo in the space of less than three minutes.

One dad, who left his seat in front of the press box to take his little boy to the toilet at 0-0 and returned in disbelief to find it was 3-0, promptly clipped the lad round the ear for his ill-timed call of nature.

The next season, 1992/93 saw the first of my 10 North End managers depart when the likeable Les Chapman was sacked after a bad start.

Sam Allardyce was installed as caretaker and in many people's eyes did well enough to earn the job full-time.

But the board went for John Beck, the man with one of the best CVs in the country at that time, having lifted Cambridge from the basement to the play-offs for the Premiership in meteoric fashion.

The rollercoaster was about to become a white-knuckle ride.

Controversial Beck was soon in bother, piling sand in the corners of Deepdale's infamous plastic pitch to slow the ball down for his 'hoof-it-to-the-wing-and-whip-it-in-quick' style of play.

The very next home game he fell foul of Alan Ball Jnr after North End ran out in slide-tackle friendly tracksuit bottoms and forgot to inform Exeter they could too.

Within five months Beck, amid strong rumours of a dressing room plot, had taken the club down.

Another 12 often turbulent months later he was leading them out at Wembley in the play-off final to face Wycombe after a memorable semi-final second leg against Torquay.

I missed the Twin Towers, having shown my expertise by booking a family holiday for the end of May convinced Preston would never make it.

With satellite TV and mobile phones still in their infancy, it was 24 hours before news of the 4-2 defeat reached Ibiza.

Grass returned to Deepdale in 1994/95 after eight years of artificial football and a certain David Moyes scored the first goal on the new surface.

Unrest in the camp continued, with Beck and assistant Gary Peters (right) almost coming to blows after the manager called in a local medium to exorcise the Deepdale demons he thought were jinxing the club.

Some players did come to blows in the street after a bad defeat at Hartlepool.

By November, the turmoil behind the scenes was such that Peters did the team talk prior to an FA Cup tie with arch-rivals Blackpool while Beck went for a walk.

Two games later he was gone altogether with successor Peters calling me down to the ground before the news was announced to ask for the LEP's backing in what he thought might be an unpopular appointment.

"I'm not Becky's twin brother," he told me. "I want the fans to know that."

They took to him no bother and he led the club to the play-offs, bringing in a young lad called David Beckham, on loan from Manchester United, to lend a hand.

Had Peters been able to keep him for the full three months Preston would probably have been promoted.

But Fergie needed the teenager back at Old Trafford after just five games and, while his career then blasted off into orbit, North End had to be content with a second successive play-off near-miss and another season in the basement division, something that reduced Peters to tears as he spoke to me after defeat at Bury.

The following year was arguably the most memorable in my time covering the club.

The first new stand appeared at Deepdale, North End had a strike double act in Andy Saville and Steve Wilkinson which petrified the rest of the division and promotion was achieved as champions.

During that season the team went on a 21-match unbeaten run, only to be brought back to earth with a bump at Barnet when, after four months of solid success, they lost 1-0 and a Preston fan raced to the front of the stand at the final whistle waving his fist at the players and screaming: "You're bloody rubbish!"

Saville ended with 30 goals and a recording deal after his vocal contribution at the players' end of season party.

Peters ended it as he preferred to, drinking long into the night with supporters after a civic reception and Flag Market celebration.

A poor season followed in the higher division, not helped by a lack of cash to strengthen.

Some, unaware there was no money to spend, blamed the manager for taking a summer holiday when he should have been scouring the nation for players.

The following close season Gary and I did a deal where he gave me a set of guideline quotes for all circumstances and asked me to make it look like he was still at work while he jetted off to New Orleans to get married.

It worked – three weeks passed and no one was any the wiser. Eventually the PNE manager returned to read the pile of LEPs on his desk and simply nodded his approval.

But the wheels were about to come off and no one was more disappointed than I was when Peters – probably the manager I got closest to during my time with PNE – decided it was time to step aside and let his thrusting young assistant take the reins.

That 1997/98 season had started so encouragingly with Peters pulling off a scoop triple signing from Manchester United, bringing three of the Fergie Fledglings – Michael Appleton, Jon Macken and Colin Murdock –to the club.

The team lost only one of its first seven matches and some began to dream of a second promotion inside two years. But such thoughts were sadly premature.

Tom Finney was knighted in the New Year, a long overdue honour for the club's most famous son. But by that time another kind of sword was beginning to hang over the shoulders of the manager.

It all came to a head three days after Christmas when North End were trailing 3-0 at half-time at Grimsby. Words were exchanged in the away dressing room after Peters heaped some of the blame for the goals on his centre-half and assistant Moyes.

I am reliably informed the pair clashed and the rumpus spilled out into the tunnel in full view of us in the press box.

Chants of "You don't know what you're doing" from the visiting fans' section meant the love affair between Peters and the public was on the edge of collapse.

And within two games he opted to stand down "for the good of the club," urging the fans to get behind his successor who he insisted was the man to take the club to the next level.

Peters took a job as director of the Centre of Excellence and, although we didn't realise it at the time, Moyes began what was to prove one of the most successful periods for Preston North End in the modern era.