Bobby Charlton, Alan Ball and a rollercoaster decade for Preston North End in the seventies

The seventies was a tumultuous for Preston North End. In the latest of his books on the history of Preston North End, author Edward Skingsley takes readers on a whistlestop trip through a decade of highs and lows. Here is a taster of what to expect

Wednesday, 28th November 2018, 4:03 pm
Updated Wednesday, 28th November 2018, 5:10 pm
World Cup winners Nobby Stiles and Sir Bobby Charlton catch up during their Preston North End days

When January 1, 1970 dawned over Deepdale, the new decade found North End in some turmoil and in the process of being relegated to the Third Division – at the time it was a new low in the club’s long history.

Just seven years previously North End had contested the FA Cup final and gone within a whisker of being promoted back to Division One. Those days were now long forgotten and when Blackpool turned up at Deepdale in April to trample over any forlorn hope North End could cling on to their Second Division status, drastic action was needed.

Alan Ball Snr was brought in to replace Bobby Seith as manager for North End’s new existence in the third tier, and brilliantly motivated the demoralised players to bounce back into the Second Division at the very first attempt.

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Preston North End manager Alan Ball senior at the 1970/71 squad at the team photocall

It was no ordinary promotion; it was a victory for exciting, attacking football executed by players who had found their confidence once again under the opinionated, no-nonsense Ball. He attracted a lot of positive publicity for North End and as early as November 1971 had his team parked in fourth spot in the Second Division, engineering this remarkable turnaround in the club’s fortunes in just 18 months.

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PNE retro game: Back to 1972 when Alan Ball Sr was manager

But January heralded a big dip in form and North End started to slide down the table, fanning fears of a relegation fight for a large part of the spring. This was happily avoided, and after a slow start in 1972/73 fourth position was attained yet again by November.

Sadly, the coincidences didn’t stop there; from January 1973, the team lost all semblance of form and plummeted down the table once again. This time Ball paid the ultimate price and was sacked, despite being the bookmaker’s second favourite to land the Manchester United managerial post some eight weeks previously.

Preston North End captain Graham Hawkins with the Division Three championship trophy on the city's Flag Market in 1971

In general, the fans were not just unhappy at Ball’s removal, but in the manner of the way it was done. A fans’ protest group was formed and the North End board came under intense criticism, eventually leading to a takeover bid by a consortium of local businessmen.

This bid failed, and North End limped over the safety line at the end of the season after holding champions-elect Burnley to a 1-1 draw on a contrived, narrow and soaked Deepdale pitch.

The big news of the summer of 1973 was the appointment of Bobby Charlton as manager. A reorganisation of the board had seen some new money being put into the coffers for Charlton, and he brought in several decent players such as Nobby Stiles, Francis Burns and David Sadler during his first season.

For the third season in a row, the North End fan would be shown the dizzy heights of Division Two – reaching second place in early October – and the plunging lows. Charlton went one fatal step further than Ball and took North End down, and soon learned the grim realities of being the manager at Deepdale.

Preston North End striker Michael Robinson in action against Burnley in 1978

In January, striker Alex Bruce, lauded by Charlton during the previous season, was shunted out, apparently with the approval of the manager, to Newcastle United to fund the arrival of Mike Elwiss to the North End ranks from Doncaster Rovers. The transfer of Bruce would come back to haunt Charlton in the opening weeks of the 1975/76 season.

After the board sold Mel Holden out of the blue to Sunderland in the close season, rumours of discontent at Deepdale started to circulate but Charlton dismissed such talk – ending his call-to-arms message with the prophetic words, “…and the directors are right behind me”.

Newcastle United’s new manager Gordon Lee made a direct approach to the board for North End’s centre half and captain, John Bird, keeping Charlton out of the loop. The board liked what they saw – £50,000 cash and a choice of Alex Bruce or Mick Burns for the talented Bird. When Charlton was finally informed by the board of their unanimous decision to sell Bird on the morning of August 21, 1975 he disagreed, promising his captain before he went into the boardroom, “if they sell you, I’m resigning”. By lunchtime, Charlton was the ex-North End manager.

Player Mike Elwiss and manager Nobby Stiles (at the civic reception given to Preston North End in recognition of their promotion in 1978

Puzzlingly, Bruce was “not good enough to get into my team” according to Charlton; this after being described as “…vital to our plans” by the same man just 18 months before! Bruce would have no problem re-establishing himself at Deepdale, and now rightly sits in the North End hall of fame.

The North End directors were pilloried in the swathes of Fleet Street newsprint that Charlton’s resignation attracted, and if one lesson was learned from this unsavoury affair it was that no matter whom you were, or what reputation you carried, you did not mess with the North End Board. Their policy to sell emerging talent onwards for a yield and replace them with players ‘who had been around the block’ knew no bounds. Harry Catterick was eventually appointed to replace Charlton.

The selling of a host of talented youth from the middle of the seventies was short sighted, and inhibited any semblance of ambition. Players such as John Bird, Mel Holden, Tony Morley, Mark Lawrenson, Gary Williams and Mike Elwiss would all be moved on to clubs who were ambitious and funded accordingly. It wearied the fans, and gates started to dip as the policy set off a spiral of decline that would take the club to the edge of bankruptcy by the early eighties.

After a couple of years of marking time in the Division Three under manager Catterick, the board decided the time was now right for chief coach Nobby Stiles to step up and take over the managerial reigns. Ably assisted by Alan Kelly, Stiles led North End to promotion by the skin of their teeth in his first season at the helm. It saw the final and unforgettable blooming of perhaps the greatest strike force in modern times at Deepdale – Bruce and Elwiss. In the three seasons between 1975/76 and 1977/78 the pair would bang in 126 goals between them and thrill the North End faithful week in, week out.

North End made a slow start to life back in Division Two in 1978/79. With Elwiss gone, there were fears for their survival. That was until Stiles and Kelly developed a playing style for North End which although producing a lot of drawn games, made North End virtually unbeatable. North End would lose only four games from their last 29, winning 11 and drawing 14. A draw back then was worth 50 per cent of a win and this constant accumulation of points saw North End rise to seventh position by the end of the season – the clubs highest finish since 1963/64.

Before 1979/80 got underway, the saga surrounding yet another emerging North End star, the lion-hearted Michael Robinson would unfold. Robinson was happy with his lot at Deepdale, even though the board had turned down bids of around £300,000 for him in the spring of 1979 from QPR and Manchester City. However, that refusal wasn’t enough for Peter Swales, the City chairman. He had just brought Malcolm Allison back to the club who convinced him that Robinson was the next big thing and he had to have him in the City team.

Preston North End fans at Preston railway station prepare to catch a train to Crewe Alexandra for an FA Cup match in 1976

A remarkable, surreal on-the-hoof bidding process then took place over the telephone to the point where a flabbergasted North End Board, obviously taken aback by Swales’ desperation to land his man, tried their luck by only sanctioning his offer of £650,000 if City agreed to pay North End’s element of the VAT on the deal too – an additional figure of over £90,000. They did – at the speed of light.

When the season of 1979/80 kicked off without Robinson up front and Bruce recovering from a knee operation, it became evident that North End would need more up front that just Steve Elliott and Eric Potts, both signed during the previous season. It was blindingly obvious where North End were missing a trick, but no funds were forthcoming for the missing piece of the jigsaw. Bruce did eventually return to the fray, but wasn’t at his prolific best.

Nevertheless, Stiles and Kelly guided North End to 10th position by the end of the campaign. Their partnership was fantastic for North End, but not enough for the board to back with any conviction going into 1980/81 and North End were relegated at end of that season.

After years of neglect, it was the aged Deepdale ground itself that was ‘hoovering’ up the massive proceeds from the Robinson deal; the board deciding to throw good money after bad in attempting to satisfy implementation of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975.

Stiles’ reward for his first fail at Deepdale in eight years was the sack. Money had to be found by the board to compensate the loyal warrior, and a whole lot more just 165 days later when the decision to appoint Tommy Docherty as his successor fell flat on its face… but that’s another story altogether.

* Preston North End – The Seventies by Edward Skingsley is available online from, and from the Preston North End club shop, Deepdale.