Hats off to PNE’s ‘Gentry’

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Alan Ball Snr would not have realised that a few words to the gentlemen of the Press after a Preston game would have sparked a football fashion line and, many years later, a unique celebration and remembrance event.

“Preston fans are the best, they are the Gentry’, said Ball after being asked for a comment about a sizeable support which had followed his side to an away game in the early 1970s.

North End fans on Gentry Day at Hillsborough in 2012

North End fans on Gentry Day at Hillsborough in 2012

No doubt the discussion then moved on to events on the pitch but those words were not forgotten and still play a prominent part in PNE folklore to this day.

In the weeks and months after Ball’s words, a section of North Ends supporters brought the ‘Gentry’ comparison to reality.

They began dressing for matches in smart suits and bowler hats, bringing the ‘landed gentry’ to football grounds up and down the country.

The craze would eventually fade but decades later, in February 2005, the Gentry returned.

It was the passing of PNE fan John Tracey, an original member of the Gentry in the 1970s, which saw its rebirth.

In his honour, a group of the Preston faithful organised the ‘Return of the Gentry’ for an away game at Queens Park Rangers.

Bowler hats popped up in the Loftus Road away end, fans having a ball as North End won 2-1 thanks to goals from Chris Lucketti and David Nugent.

The month after the QPR game, Nugent celebrated scoring in a victory at Watford by putting on a bowler hat thrown from the away section of Vicarage Road. Gentry Day became an annual event in 2008.

The idea is to remember fans and former Preston players who have passed away in the previous 12 months.

QPR was again chosen as the venue in April 2008 , the suits and hats returning to Loftus Road

Neil Mellor and Tamas Priskin fired North End into a 2-0 lead only for the home side to score twice late on to earn a 2-2 draw.

In April 2009, the suits and bowlers were massed in The Valley’s away stand for PNE’s goalless draw with Charlton.

It has been a bit downhill in terms of results since then on Gentry Day, although the populartity of the event has grown and reached a wider circle of fans.

The 2010 Gentry Day saw the bowlers perched high in the Gods of Newcastle United’s St James’ Park, 2,800 Preston fans seeing a 3-0 defeat.

The 2011 day saw a 1-0 loss at Hull City, then there was the 2012 reverse at Sheffield Wednesday.

It came in a dark spell for the club as Graham Westley struggled to get to grips with his job, alleging post-match that some of the squad had leaked the starting XI to the Owls the night before.

The last two Gentry days both took place at Brentford’s Griffin Park.

More than 800 made the trip in 2013 during the early weeks of Simon Grayson’s tenure.

Last season, on Good Friday, the away end was a 1,800 sell-out.

The original date for 2015 Gentry Day was February 14, to mark the one-year anniversary of Sir Tom Finney’s passing. However, North End’s progress to the fifth round of the FA Cup and a home date with Manchester United two days later, saw plans rearranged.

So it is all off to Barnsley this weekend, Oakwell’s away end having room for more than 4,000 Preston supporters if necessary.

If ticket sales are anything to go by, it should be the best-supported Gentry Day so far.

It is North End’s first visit to the home of the Tykes since February 2011.

No doubt a few beer pumps will run dry between here and South Yorkshire

In the first instance though, raise a glass in the memory of the Preston North End fans no longer with us, to those who – to coin a phrase – have moved seats to get a better view.