Big Interview: Former Preston striker Steve Wilkinson recalls the club's Third Division title success 25 years on
Craig Salmon talks to former Preston North End striker Steve Wilkinson, who helped the club win the Third Division title in 1995/96
Despite witnessing his two star strikers perform the remarkable feat of scoring a hat-trick each in the same game, Preston manager Gary Peters was left with a slight dilemma at the final whistle.
It’s somewhat of a rarity to see one player score a trio of goals during a match, let alone two.
So the North End boss must have been purring in the dugout when his twin strikeforce of Steve Wilkinson and Andy Saville shared all the goals in a 6-0 rout of Mansfield Town during the early part of the 1995/96 season.
The pair had been brought together by Peters in the summer, Saville from Birmingham City and Wilkinson ironically from the Stags – both deals worth six-figure sums each.
The PNE boss certainly stuck his neck on the line by signing the duo for what was big money for a club in the Third Division – the bottom flight of English football back then.
However, the double swoop proved to be a master stroke by Peters as they provided the goals which swept North End gloriously to the title the following May.
Saville ended up with a whopping 29 league goals, with Wilkinson proving to be the perfect creative foil – contributing 11 goals to the cause himself. In a season full of highlights, the annihilation of Mansfield was arguably the standout memory.
It came in the middle of a remarkable 18-match unbeaten run in the league after North End had lost their opening game of the season, a surprising 2-1 loss at home to Lincoln City.
It must have been satisfying for Peters to see his two high-profile signings set the world alight with their performance against Mansfield, although he was left with a slight headache in the dressing room afterwards – which one of them would be handed the match ball?
In the end Peters was rescued from an awkward predicament by his chairman Bryan Gray.
“I think I have got the actual match ball from that game,” said Wilkinson with a chuckle. “It’s somewhere up in my loft. I think the club found two balls in the end– Bryan Gray found an additional ball to give to Sav.
“The game is still very fresh in my memory. It was strange for me coming against Mansfield Town, my old club who I had just left.
“But I think I got the actual match ball because I scored my hat-trick first.
“It was an unique situation I suppose because even when a team wins by six or seven, you very rarely get two players both scoring hat-tricks.
“Certainly not all six goals from your two strikers – it was very much a one-off.”
North End went on to secure promotion that season by finishing top with 86 points – three better than second-placed Gillingham.
They sealed the title by winning their final three games 2-0, both Saville and Wilkinson aptly netting against Exeter City on the last day of the season in front of 20,000 frenzied home fans at Deepdale.
The strike partnership is still fondly remembered to this day by many North End fans and Willkinson admits he and Saville clicked perfectly as a partnership.
Having scored more than 20 goals for Mansfield the previous season, Wilkinson may have envisaged that he would be the one who would be prolific in front of goal. But as it transpired, his influence was more creative, proving to be the perfect foil for chief goalscorer Saville.
“I suppose it was a fitting way to end the season with myself and Sav both scoring on the final day of the season,” said Wilkinson, who began his career at Leicester City.
“I think it was a case of roles reversed with regards to myself and Sav.
“Gary Peters anticipated at the start of the season that it would be me scoring lots of goals and Sav would be the creator. It turned out slightly different to that.
“How our partnership worked out I don’t know.
“We shared a room together on away trips and had a understanding of each other in terms of our personalities.
“Whatever it was, we just clicked from the first pre-season game and certainly after the first three or four league games, we were both up and running – it just went from there.
“Between us we scored more than 40 goals that season and when you’ve got a strikeforce contributing that amount of goals then you have got a great chance of success as a team.
“It was a great time and when myself and Sav do get chance to come back to Deepdale as guests, we always get a great reception from the fans.
“I guess the younger fans will have been told about us by their dads and that’s a real positive for us.”
Despite the glorious nature of that campaign, Wilkinson recalls it was not all plain-sailing for he and his PNE team-mates, especially early on.
“I always remember that season, it took us a while to get our first league win at Deepdale. We had drawn quite a few and won a quite few away but were still waiting for our first home win.
“Then we played Chester City who were flying at the time – I think they might have been top and we were third or fourth. We ended up beating them 2-0.
“I think I scored my first goal at Deepdale in front of the Town End and that set me on my way for what was a hugely successful season for myself and the team.”
While Saville and Wilkinson stole the majority of the headlines that season, North End’s success was built around a formidable core group of players, such as captain Ian Bryson, future PNE manager David Moyes, Lee Cartwright, Ryan Kidd, Simon Davey and Graeme Atkinson to name just a few.
“It wasn’t just about me and Sav,” said Wilkinson.
“I think the skipper Ian Bryson contributed double figures in goals, Graeme Atkinson and Simon Davey likewise.
“When you have got a team scoring that amount of goals from all over the park, then you have got a good chance of achieving success.”
One of the biggest thrills for North End’s stars of that era was the privilege of performing in front of football royalty each week.
North End’s greatest ever player Sir Tom Finney – arguably England’s greatest of all time – was still very much part of the club behind the scenes.
He was an avid watcher of the team each week and would often hand Wilkinson and his team-mates a few pearls of wisdom.
Wilkinson added: “I remember when I signed for Preston, I drove up to Deepdale, parked in the car park and then walked to the reception.
“I introduced myself but at that moment Sir Tom came out of the office and just said, ‘Hello Steve, how are you?’
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God! This is a legend of the game and he knows who I am’.
“But I remember we had a few conversations during that season and it was just nice to have someone like him around the club.
“He was such a great role model not just for the development players but the senior players as well.”
After such a terrific first season at Preston, Wilkinson saw his progress hampered by injury in his second year.
He made just 12 appearances in all competitions, scoring seven goals. In the summer of 1997, he was released and joined Chesterfield where he spent the next three years.
After a brief spell in non-league, Wilkinson retired from playing and re-trained as a teacher.
He is currently the head of the Talented Athlete Support Scheme at Loughborough College and is director of Football of the Loughborough Foxes women’s team.
In his 20-year teaching career, Premier League stars such as Jeff Hendrick,Harvey Barnes and Hamza Choudhury have passed through the college along with Commonwealth Games gold medal winner, weightlifter Zoe Smith.