Big Interview - Gary Swann

For all his reputation as a combative opponent, during a highly productive but sometimes unsung Deepdale spell, Gary Swann is a friendly cove.

He always seemed to handle himself with tact and diplomacy on the field, but was a fierce competitor with an unquenchable spirit all the same.

Swann developed a habit of arriving unmarked at the far post to convert a number of important goals, and obtained hero status when he scored against Blackpool on Boxing Day 1987, stooping low in front of the Town End to head home in the last few seconds, Preston claiming a 2-1 win on the Deepdale plastic.

He had endeared himself to the North End faithful long before.

"We would sit and watch the video from Saturday's game and the gaffer would point at the screen, and say, 'There he is, the ghost'," he said.

"I can hear John McGrath's words now.

"He'd be having his beans on toast, going, 'Les (assistant manager), Isn't the ghost a beautiful sight?

"'How did he get on the back post like that without that big centre-half seeing him?

"'Look at that one-two with Gary Brazil. Wonderful Les'.

"The ghost or the worm. Those were John McGrath's nicknames for me. He used to say I came out of nowhere to score, and I did sometimes."

Swann was certainly no apparition, and the meagre sum of 15,000 John McGrath paid Hull City in November 1987 was surely one of the late manager's shrewdest buys.

Months earlier Preston, one of the founder members of the Football League, had been forced to go cap in hand to the re-election committee after finishing in 91st position, with only Torquay United below them.

In contrast, the 1986-87 campaign was a memorable one, North End winning promotion from the old Fourth Division.

Deepdale's gates soared from 3,500 to 12,000 – North End dumped Middlesbrough out of the FA Cup – and hit men John Thomas and Gary Brazil shared 48 goals between them as Preston racked up 90 points.

It was a remarkable transformation, and McGrath was the architect-in-chief.

Swann came off the bench at Peterborough one foggy November afternoon, and played in all the remaining games of that memorable campaign, scoring some vital goals as Preston clinched automatic promotion behind champions Northampton Town.

The following season, Swann did not miss a game and was second-top scorer with 12 goals, and was also an ever-present in 1989-90.

He was comfortable in defence or midfield, but played most of his games for Preston in the middle of the park, supplying Thomas, Brazil, Brian Mooney or Ronnie Hildersley – or scoring himself.

Gary said: "There was a wonderful bond in that promotion-winning squad, and I got the sense it was right for me straight away at Deepdale, on and off the field.

"There were 1,000 North End fans at London Road when I made my debut.

"I was amazed at the volume of support, and it was clear that Preston had been a big club.

"A couple of months later they took 6,000 to Newcastle United in the FA Cup.

"I always thought that was an important role for a footballer, meeting the fans.

"Like you, they were part of the community. And when I met them in the supermarket or on the street I loved to chat about PNE.

"If you put the effort in then they recognised that and I always gave my all for the Preston badge.

I think, we revived PNE together and it was a huge collective effort to lift Preston from the bottom of Division Four to automatic promotion.

"You could sense that the supporters were desperate to see exciting football again, and I think we achieved that.

"The re-election season had almost killed North End, but suddenly we had a squad full of exciting players."

Swann always enjoyed a prosperous goal-scoring ratio, and he struck up an immediate rapport with the North End faithful.

"I could read a situation, and I was able to see things unfold in front of me," he added.

"It came naturally to me, reading the game and anticipating events on the pitch.

"I was always able to do that. I could outjump players a lot

bigger than me.

"A cross would come in and I'd say, 'Step over it Gary (Brazil),' and I'd slot it in.

"But I always had to work very hard at my game. That part

didn't come naturally.

"I could get in positions on the pitch using my instinct."

These days, Swann lives in Sussex and works as a leisure centre manager.

Swann was born 46 years ago in York. He's a youthful looking 40-something, and minus the moustache which earned him the nickname 'Fu-Man' at Deepdale, his North End memories remain vivid ones.

Swann turns out occasionally for Cuckfield Town in the Mid-Sussex League, who he has also managed.

We met in a wine bar in Haywards Heath, near Brighton, and the town closest to his home village.

He talks about John McGrath with great affection.

Gary said: "John was a contradiction in so many ways, but that Deepdale era was so much fun.

"He had his quirks, certainly, and some people would say it was absolute madness, but it wasn't.

"The gaffer had a strong method in his madness.

"That method was motivational, and he would put you in scenarios that brought the best out of you in that team environment.

"Les Chapman, the gaffer's assistant, would do the drills on the Deepdale pitch. Suddenly you'd look up and see the big man stood at the top of the giant Kop Terrace, hands in pockets, not moving a muscle.

"He'd be up there in his manager's jacket, just staring down.

"I'd think, 'What the heck is he doing?'

"Ten minutes later, he'd show up at the back of the Town End terrace.

"He'd always spot something. He was very good at that and was a very perceptive man.

"He had a great eye for a player, and it always intrigued me how he got that squad together, and evolved that style in just a few weeks.

"Nowadays when a manager is going to buy a player, they dig deep to find out about their character, what their life is like outside football and whether they would add to or disrupt the team.

"John left no stone unturned in that respect and was

extremely thorough.

"He had an analogy for everything and that made for some crazy dressing room moments.

"He would sit us down in the dressing room, point at Bob Atkins and say, 'You are the rockery in my garden, the hard bit, Bob'.

"Then he'd say to the midfielders, 'You are my prize roses, and when you bloom my team comes to life'.

"He once told us that he had bought a new lawnmower.

"I've got this new Qantas, lads. He meant Qualcast.

"He'd laugh and say, 'I'll get you lot back'.

"Sometimes you'd think, 'What on earth is he doing?' And then the penny would drop a couple of weeks later.

"Sometimes it never made sense.

"He could blow like a volcano. The tea cups could fly and the arms would flail.

"But he'd say to me in that rich Manchester accent, 'Make sure you keep them all in check, Swanny, and that they do X, Y and Z'.

"Then Brian Mooney or Ronnie Hildersley would go out and do their own thing, but that was the beauty of that era because we did had a lot of

creative talents.

"He brought the great Frank Worthington in for the last couple of months of the 1986-87 season.

"Frank was just right for that moment of the season, and he was brilliant.

"Frank's skill was so natural, almost slow and deliberate.

"Who else would have brought a 38-year-old star in to play a cameo role in the Fourth Division? But that was John McGrath.

"Frank scored one of the best goals I've ever seen, chipping in a shot from the edge of the penalty box over the Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeeperMick Stowell.

"You never knew what was going to happen under John McGrath. You could never second guess him and that's what made it fun.

"It was a one-off and I never experienced that in football again.

"Deepdale, was a fun environment to be in. It was a special time in my life."

North End clinched promotion that season at Leyton Orient, on a late April day at Brisbane Road.

"It was a fantastic day and one of the great memories of the

1986-87 season.

"I sat on the bus going down to London and I thought, 'Who hasn't scored for ages?'

"'Could it be all set up for an unlikely hero?' And up stepped Les Chapman. It had to be Chappy.

"He scored the goal that won us promotion with his wrong foot. I can see it now, ballooning into the top corner in front of the open terrace.

"After the game when the press asked Les how he felt, he replied, '53 Miles West of Venus'.

"It was a B52s track. Les loved their music and North End fans named a fanzine after that track.

"The lads always used to read it.

"On the way home, Les was doing his 'Rock Lobster'(another B52s track) and Alan Kelly junior was on drums.

"I was on lead guitar, Oshor Williams was on vocals and big Sam Allardyce was doing his own version of the Music Man which lasted about 260 miles.

"In a way it seemed like a celebration of a special season.

"Football has changed beyond recognition, and I remember driving in from Leyland every day with Bob Atkins and Gary Brazil, in his little Ford Fiesta.

"There was a great camaraderie and an unbelieveable spirit in that season, which I probably never experienced in football again.

"Those Preston players were my friends and you don't often get that in a football environment.

"Together I felt like we brought Preston North End alive again."