Big Interview: Former Preston striker reminisces about his time at North End
Thirty three years ago today was a time of big celebration for Preston North End and their supporters.
Just 12 months after the Lilywhites had been forced to apply for re-election after finishing 91st in the Football League, they were promoted from the Fourth Division after a 2-1 win over Orient at Brisbane Road.
Scorer of the first goal that afternoon in London’s East End was Gary Brazil, one of 20 he notched during that memorable season.
Brazil was voted player of the year by the North End faithful, quite an accolade in a campaign where there was stern competition on the ballot paper.
The 1986/87 season saw PNE reborn, to go from second bottom of the table to runners-up inside a year was a superb effort.
It was a campaign jam packed with highlights, one which saw fans flock back to Deepdale to get right behind John McGrath’s side.
As well as promotion, they made it to the fourth round of the FA Cup, beating Middlesbrough and landing a visit to Newcastle United where 5,000 fans followed them to St James’ Park.
The season is one recalled with crystal clear clarity by Brazil, now in charge of Nottingham Forest’s academy.
At first hand he witnessed the contrast between the re-election season and the glory of promotion.
He arrived at PNE in 1985 as North End fought and lost the battle to avoid relegation to the basement division for the first time.
Brazil stayed at Deepdale and played in that wretched re-election season, before being part of that glorious transformation under the management of McGrath.
“I came on loan to PNE from Sheffield United with Bob Atkins,” said Brazil.
“We then briefly went back before Preston signed us both.
“The season when we had to apply for re-election was a really challening year. It would be fair to say everything going on around the club wasn’t conducive to putting a successful team out on the pitch.
“I’d managed to score a good amount of goals and was quite disillusioned about what had happened.
“I actually went to train with Mansfield that pre-season and there was the chance of joining them.
“Ian Greaves the manager at Mansfield had wanted to sign me but he had a change of mind.
“I came back to Preston, worked hard and found a very different environment.
“Big John McGrath had got his grip on the club, brought a few players in and moved some on.
“John brought in some good honest characters and we all gelled.
“Sam Allardyce, Oshor Williams and Les Chapman helped change the place.
“A new energy was created in the dressing room and it was great to feel that.
“We played wing-backs which not many other teams did at the time.
“Peter Bulmer and Mick Bennett would push up the wings, it worked well.”
A memorable game a couple of months into the season saw North End win 4-1 against Burnley at Turf Moor, Brazil and John Thomas both netting twice.
Those goals were Brazil’s first of the season and he needed them.
“The game at Burnley came shortly before we signed Steve Taylor,” said Brazil.
“I needed to show John McGrath I could score goals and I had a good game that day.
“When Steve Taylor was signed, he played in an away game at Northampton and I was dropped to the bench.
“Steve scored in that game but unfortunately he broke his arm. So I got a reprieve and everything seemed to click into place.
“Myself and John Thomas hit it off as a partnership and we scored a lot of goals.”
Northampton were the side who finished above PNE that season and the Cobblers’ visit to Deepdale in early April 1987 was a big night for Brazil.
In front of a 16,456 crowd, Brazil scored the game’s only goal – the win pushing them closer to promotion.
“Northampton were a very good side, well drilled and pushed up close to the half-way line to catch you offside,” said Brazil.
“We had worked on playing diagonal balls over their back four because of their high line.
“Quite early in the game Alex Jones hit a beauty of a diagonal ball. I chased it, got clear on goal and scored.
“It was a big win for us and we couldn’t believe how many fans had turned up that night.
“I think we knew after that game that we were going to be promoted.
“Later that month we beat Orient, I scored our first goal and Les Chapman got the winner.
“We were promoted and that was a very special day.
“The following Tuesday we played Tranmere at Deepdale and the place was packed – the fans were on the pitch at the end, it was a brilliant occasion.
“I’ve still got a VHS video of that season which has so many good memories.
“John McGrath was a special manager and very demanding of us.
“He didn’t hand out praise easily but I always remember getting a big hug from him after we’d won on a wet Tuesday night at Rochdale.
“I’d scored from an acute angle and it was a big away win. To get that hug was a big moment.”
Brazil’s time at Deepdale came to an end in February 1989 when he joined Newcastle United – Ian Bogie making the move to PNE as part of the deal.
Brazil said: “In the couple of seasons after promotion I don’t think John McGrath got the chance to strengthen the squad as he would have wanted.
“We strengthened a little bit but players moved on.
“I got the chance to go to Newcastle. I wasn’t desperate to move on because I was settled at Preston.
“In the end I decided to go and see what Newcastle was all about. I had a couple of years there.
“Then I had a few years at Fulham. In football you end up being a bit of a nomad, you rarely pick where you live.”