PNE: When we were champions

Twenty years ago, Preston North End swept to the Third Division title. A magnificent season under the astute stewardship of Gary Peters culminated in skipper Ian Bryson lifting the trophy at a packed Deepdale. The LEP looks back on a memorable campaign.
The victorious PNE squadThe victorious PNE squad
The victorious PNE squad

The 1995/96 season will live long in the memory of Preston North End supporters.

Andy Saville in tandem with Steve Wilkinson, terrorised defences, Ian Bryson, Graeme Atkinson and Simon Davey formed a midfield which was both hard-working and pleasing on the eye.

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David Moyes and Russ Wilcox marshalled the defence with their experience, behind them the safety net of John Vaughan – a goalkeeper not the tallest in stature but with bags of ability.

Overseeing them was Gary Peters, dressed in his bright red rugby top, a manager as down to earth as they come.

They won the Third Division title in style, finishing as top scorers by some margin.

It was a campaign packed with entertainment, drama and incident.

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Saville and Wilkinson scored a hat-trick apiece in a 6-0 thrashing of Mansfield.

The bald-headed Saville jumped in a pile of snow to celebrate a late winner at Darlington.

Bryson netted two stunning goals in a 4-0 away win over Torquay, Cardiff were taken apart 5-0 on New Year’s Day.

A determined challenge from a rigid and disciplined Gillingham side – managed by Tony Pulis – was held at bay.

There was the holy trinity of 2-0 wins in the final run-in

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Orient were beaten by that scoreline in East London as PNE secured promotion, then Hartlepool were dispatched in similar style – a result which landed the title.

After Peters’ men triumphed 2-0 against Exeter on the final day, they got their hands on the trophy in front of a sold-out Deepdale.

It was all followed by an open-top bus ride and civic reception on the steps of the Harris Museum.

Four of the squad – Bryson, Saville, Davey and Wilcox – made the PFA team of the years and there were grounds for others making it too.

For Bryson, the memories of that season will never dim.

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He had been involved in two failed attempts at promotion via the play-offs.

This time, North End clicked and got it spot on.

Bryson told the Evening Post this week: “John Beck left during the season before and Gary Peters took over.

“Gary knew he had the nucleus of a good squad and that summer added a few new signings to it.

“Andy Saville and Steve Wilkinson proved to be massive signings for us.

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“David Moyes had become Gary’s assistant and that saw me named as skipper, which was a massive honour.

“As a group of players, we gelled and there were the right ingredients all the way through the side.

“Sav got us 29 goals in the league, his partnership with Steve Wilkinson just clicked.

“We were top scorers in the division by some way and that was not just relying on Sav and Wilks to do the business.

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“Simon Davey and myself got into double figures from midfield, Graeme Atkinson and Lee Cartwright got their fair share too.

“We played some very good football that season, it was not a case of grinding things out.

“Defensively we were solid, with Moyesie and Russ Wilcox in the middle.

“Andy Fensome and then Paul Sparrow were at right-back, with Dean Barrick on the other side.

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“Gillingham, who chased us all season, were probably a more solid side.

“But we always went out with the attitude of scoring a lot of goals.

“When you had Sav and Steve up there, we were always capable of opening teams up.”

Midfielder Atkinson started 42 of the 46 games that season.

Atkinson – now education manager in PNE’s community department – regards it as his most memorable campaign as a player.

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“We had a good mixture of experience and youth,” said Atkinson.

“I was only 23 and a lot of the lads were of a similar age.

“Then we had the older heads like Moyes, Russ Wilcox, Sav and Steve Wilkinson.

“It was just a fantastic blend and we all knew what our jobs were.

“I can probably remember 80 to 90% of the games that season in terms of how we won the game, how we went about it.

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“A game which really stands out is the 6-0 win over Mansfield at Deepdale when Sav and Steve Wilkinson both scored hat-tricks.

“We probably could have scored double figures that afternoon, we were that good.

“The Sir Tom Finney Stand was being built at the time and on that side of the pitch there was just a hoarding.

“For one of the goals, the ball had gone out of play and the Mansfield players were hoping for a breather while the ball was recovered from the building site.

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“But we had the ball boys waiting to throw a spare ball back to us quickly.

“It was actually Paul McKenna, who was a youth team player at the time, who threw the ball back.

“We took a quick throw, got behind the Mansfield defence and scored. That just summed up how hungry we were to score goals.”

The three-game final run-in was a stand-out time for skipper Bryson.

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“We won 2-0 at Orient with two goals from Sav and that saw us promoted,” said the Scotsman.

“David Beckham came into the dressing room afterwards to celebrate – he had been on loan here the season before.

“A week later we went up to Hartlepool and knew that if we won and other results went our way, then we were champions.

“We were without John Vaughan that day because he was ill, so young David Lucas went in nets.

“Again we won 2-0 and the title was ours.

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“It meant the final game of the season against Exeter was special.

“Deepdale was sold out and we won 2-0 again.

“It was a special moment to lift the trophy. I’d experienced two promotions before at Sheffield United but never won a trophy.”

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