Dave Seddon speaks to Ian Rigby and Eric Jones as the Preston North End Former Players’ Association, which has more than 220 members, celebrates its 20th anniversary
Preston North End’s Former Players’ Association blew out the candles on its 20th birthday cake recently.
The idea to set the group up came from lifelong PNE fan Ian Rigby who, two decades later, is still going strong as its secretary.
A labour of love would be the best way to describe the role of Rigby who does not live far from North End’s Deepdale ground.
While PNE might be in the Championship on the pitch, the former players’ association is very much Premier League.
They boast more than 220 members worldwide and for a long time had the great Sir Tom Finney as its president.
Golf days and crown green bowling events are held on an annual basis, their sportsman’s dinner at Deepdale boasts a sold-out sign every autumn.
For many years, they had their own allotment just off Garstang Road, a quiet place for a natter about the old days, a bacon buttie and a cup of tea on a Friday.
If someone has pulled on a Preston shirt, whether that be for the first team or reserves, they are entitled to membership and welcomed into the ‘family’.
Rigby first had the idea of a former players’ association in 1996 and in early 1998 it became reality.
Its popularity is such that it has many good years ahead and with Rigby at the tiller, it is in very good hands.
Rigby is North End’s official historian –what he does not know about the club you could write in marker pen on the back of a postage stamp.
“I got interviewed in the PNE programme in 1996 and in the interview I mentioned that I would like to see a Preston North End former players’ association,” Rigby said.
“Frank Hastie, Mel Phillipson, John McCann and myself – all North End fans – got together to see what we could do.
“We set up an event at St Anthony’s club in Fulwood as a reunion for players from the 1950s and 1960s in late 1997.
“It was well attended, George Ross and Tommy Thompson among those who turned up.
“That was the catalyst for setting up the association early in 1998.
“We asked Sir Tom Finney to be president and were delighted when he said yes.
“Sir Tom got us in touch with his former team-mate Joe Marston in Australia and it was links like that which helped steadily grow the association.
“We’ve had members dotted all over the world.
“Tony Singleton from the 1964 FA Cup final team lived in America and he became a member – sadly he passed away a few years ago.
“Paul Masefield who was a right-back here when John Beck was manager, now lives in Singapore.
“He is a big pundit on football, almost Singapore’s version of Gary Lineker.
“Brian Godfrey, who was here for many seasons in the 1960s, lived in Cyprus.
“We had more than 270 members at one stage but usually it is around the 220 mark.
“People sadly pass away and we get new members joining – Neil Mellor from recent times has joined us.
“When we first started, we had three players from the 1938 FA Cup winning side in Tom Smith, George Mutch and Bobby Beattie.
“We put together a committee with players from different eras which we felt was an important thing to do. From the 1950s we had Tommy Thompson, George Ross from the 1960s, Alex Bruce from the 1970s – three big names who all still lived locally.
“To have Sir Tom as our president was wonderful, a real honour.
“Sir Tom would come to all the events we organised and all the social events. We had a night out at Belle Vue dogs in Manchester, Sir Tom was in the queue with his flat cap on, waiting to put a bet on just like everyone else.”
Running the association is a hobby for Rigby and the committee.
In November, founder member Mel Phillipson sadly passed away – he was a former taxi driver in the city and a pub landlord.
Comedian Mike King is a key member – while well known for his jokes on the after-dinner circuit, he also played for PNE’s ‘B’ team back in the day and scored six goals on his debut against Stockport County.
“Mike is a huge help for the sportsman’s dinner, booking the speakers every year as well as being the compere,” said Rigby.
“Over the years we have organised a number of events in addition to the golf days, bowls days and annual dinner.
“We’ve had reunions of the 1964 FA Cup final team and the 1970/71 Third Division title-winning team.
“There was a reunion of the team which got to the FA Youth Cup final in 1960.
“The lads were 16 and 17 back then – we then brought them back together when they were in their 50s and 60s.
“We did an 80th birthday celebration for Sir Tom, and then a private one for him when he was 90 – that was just for team-mates.”
Former PNE winger Eric Jones, an understudy to Sir Tom in the 1950s, has been a member from the start.
Jones cannot speak highly enough of the job Rigby does in running the association.
“I joined North End in 1951 and had the best six years of my life at the club,” said Jones. “The former players’ association has helped give me back the feeling I had when I was a player.
“Ian does a superb job as secretary, he has brought so many people together in the last 20 years.
“Through it I have met old team-mates and players I played against who otherwise I wouldn’t have had the chance of meeting.
“If there is a better run former players’ association than ours, and I include the big clubs, than I have yet to see it.
“There’s Peter Higham and Tommy Docherty and myself from the 1950s and it is great to be able to share our memories. It wouldn’t have been possible without the work that Ian does.”
Rigby hopes the former players’ association continues to thrive.
“Anyone who has worn the PNE shirt can join, it is a one-off £10 joining fee,” said Rigby.
“Some associations only take players who played in the first team but I think that is wrong. If you played for the reserves, you still represented Preston.”