Big Interview: Ex-PNE, and current Fleetwood keeper coach, David Lucas

On Thursday, May 17, 2001, Deepdale witnessed a night of football drama as Preston North End and Birmingham City did battle in a play-off semi-final.

David Lucas saves from Marcelo in the penalty shoot-out against Birmingham in 2001
David Lucas saves from Marcelo in the penalty shoot-out against Birmingham in 2001

The second-leg tie conjured up a roller coaster of emotions with PNE holding their nerve in a penalty shoot-out to go through to the final at the Millennium Stadium.

Thrust firmly into the spotlight that evening was David Lucas, North End’s goalkeeper – a local lad whose connection with the club went back to his primary school days.

Penalty shoot-outs can make heroes of those who hold their nerve to score from the spot.

The fans packed into what was a three-sided ground at the time, will recall straight away Paul McKenna’s winning penalty and the one thumped home by Sean Gregan.

They will also go somewhat misty-eyed as Mark Rankine’s late, late goal is remembered, one which sent the game into extra time and later to the shoot-out.

Lucas’ role that night was absolutely vital, with him saving Birmingham’s first penalty and watching their next one hit the post.

He was beaten by the next two but a look back at the footage from the night shows that the keeper went the right way for all four spot-kicks.

That is something Lucas puts down to the meticulous planning of the then PNE boss David Moyes.

“The play-off games against Birmingham were something else, absolutely incredible to be involved in,” said Lucas.

“As a Preston fan seven years earlier, I had celebrated a dramatic play-off semi-final win against Torquay, the last game on the plastic pitch.

“Then there I was, in goal for North End and going to the Millennium Stadium – what a massive night.

“The away leg at St Andrews was probably the most intimidating atmosphere I had been in.

“It was a Sunday afternoon, boiling hot and afterwards there was a big thunderstorm.

“We were quite happy to come away with a 1-0 defeat in the circumstances, get back to Deepdale and go from there.

“Graham Alexander missed a penalty quite early in the game and was in a bit of a daze for a few minutes after.

“We went on to win 2-1, Mark Rankine – the man with the worst feet in football – got the goal right at the end to send it to extra time!

“Ranks was there in the right place to follow-up a shot from David Healy, which had been blocked by Ian Bennett the Birmingham keeper.

“The game ended up going to penalties and we held our nerve.

“My preparation for the game had included David Moyes talking to me about the possibility of it going to a shoot-out.

“A couple of months earlier, Birmingham had reached the Carling Cup final and played Liverpool, a game which also went to penalties.

“Moyesy had gone through the tape of that and made an educated guess that the same players would take penalties against us if it came down to a shoot-out.

“He reasoned that if they put a penalty that way in front of 70,000 people at the Millennium Stadium, they would go the same way in front of 15,000 at Deepdale.

“He was right. Moyesy had told me which way to dive and I went the right way for all four of Birmingham’s spot-kicks.

“Moyesy was quite ahead of his time in that respect, in the analysis of opponents. It is commonplace now that goalkeepers and their coaches will study the opposition penalty-takers as part of their research.

“You can get a DVD of any game and look on YouTube.

“Back then, not every game had a camera there and things were not gone into with as much detail.

“Another part of our preparation for the game had included Moyesy having us watch a video of the last few minutes of Manchester United’s Champions League final win over Bayern Munich.

“We all sat down and watched it at the hotel in Southport where we were doing our pre-match.

“He wanted to show us that a game was never over and look what happened later that night when Ranks scored that late goal.

“We had an expectation that we would win the game, we were all confident in our ability to do that.

“The celebrations were good afterwards but for us, it did not seem like a victory which had come out of the blue.

“That squad was made up of a confident bunch of lads with some big characters in there.

“Unfortunately, the final against Bolton proved a step too much for us.

“We ended up being a bit flat on the day and never really got going.

“Don’t get me wrong, we had a couple of decent chances but it all proved to be one hurdle too many and Bolton beat us 3-0.

“The three clubs who went up that season, Bolton, Fulham and Blackburn, stayed in the Premier League for a number of years.

“I think that showed just what a strong division it was that season – for us to have finished fourth and got to the play-off final was a great effort.”

Lucas, now 38 and a member of Fleetwood Town’s coaching staff, has been a goalkeeper as long as he can remember.

He went to school in the shadow of Deepdale, a fellow pupil of his at both primary and secondary school, being Kevin Kilbane.

He started training with North End in the Under-10s, that the first stage of a career which saw him play for a number of clubs including Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds and Swindon.

“I went to St Gregory’s School on Blackpool Road, just across the road from Deepdale,” said Lucas.

“One of the teachers used to run the ball boys at PNE so I used to watch games from the side of the pitch.

“I have been a goalkeeper for as long as I can remember, I was always in nets.

“It was in the Under-10s age group that I first started training at Preston.

“We trained on the plastic pitch on Monday and Thursday nights. I signed schoolboy forms when I was 14 and then got taken on as an apprentice at 16.

“It was a different system then, you could still play with your mates in a team and for school, play on Moor Park until it went dark.

“Becoming a footballer had never been a career plan. I did quite well at school and was thinking of joining the police.

“Then the offer of an apprenticeship came from North End and I started to take it really seriously.

“Sam Allardyce was the youth-team manager who offered me my apprenticeship.

“After a couple of weeks of me being there, Big Sam left the club.

“Chris Sulley and Gavin Nebbling took over coaching the young lads, they were at the end of their playing careers at Preston.

“To have two ex-pros with loads of enthusiasm taking the training sessions was excellent.

“Paul McKenna was in my age group, with Kev Kilbane the year above.

“I signed professional around my 17th birthday.”

Lucas’ debut in the PNE first team came on the day they won the Third Division title at Hartlepool in April 1996.

Promotion has been clinched the week before with a win at Orient, the focus then turning to finishing on top of the table.

Said Lucas: “I had played a few games that season after being loaned out to Darlington to get some experience.

“Darlington had a really good side, with Sean Gregan and Robbie Blake among their players.

“The day before the Hartlepool game, our regular keeper John Vaughan had not felt very well.

“He travelled up separately in a car to try and prevent the bug spreading.

“John still wasn’t right on the morning of the game so I got the nod from Gary Peters to start.

“We won 2-0 and that saw us crowned champions.

“After the final whistle, I got back to the dressing room and the kitman Brian Hickson ran in to say results had gone our way.

“The journey home from one to remember, we stopped at Scotch Corner and there were loads of Preston fans celebrating.

“It had not been too hard to go into the team that day.

“When you look at League Two sides these days, many of the players are young lads.

“But I had David Moyes and Russ Wilcox in front of me, Paul Sparrow and Dean Barrick. Ian Bryson and Simon Davey were in midfield, with Andy Saville and Steve Wilkinson up front.

“It was an unbelievable team, packed with leaders and experience.

“Not long after that game, I had an involvement in Euro ’96 with England.

“Terry Venables invited three or four of the England Under-18 lads to train with the squad and help with the kit.

“I got the chance to be around players like Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne and David Seaman.”

Lucas was at North End until 2004 when he joined Sheffield Wednesday.

He had been on loan the previous season and it offered him a fresh challenge.

“I had got to a stage where I needed a change,” said Lucas.

“After a couple of days with Wednesday, I felt fresher and it was that move which really got me backing myself as a keeper, believing in my ability.

“Maybe coming away from Preston made me have to think more for myself.

“I won a promotion with Wednesday, beating Hartlepool at the Millennium Stadium.

“That was the day before Preston played West Ham in the Championship final – it would have been great for PNE to make it a double but unfortunately it was not to be.”