Big Interview: Former Preston North End striker John Thomas reflects on two contrasting seasons at Deepdale
Two seasons in the mid-1980s could not have contrasted more than they did in Preston North End’s history.
At the end of 1985/86, the Lilywhites finished second bottom of the Fourth Division, 91st out of 92 in the Football League.
It was re-election rather than automatic relegation back then, North End getting enough votes to stay in the league – mind you, not everyone voted for them.
They took full advantage of that reprieve, shooting up to the other end of the table in the 1986/87 campaign and finishing runners-up to win promotion.
What a turn around it was in the space of 12 months and striker John Thomas was one of the players to witness both the good and the bad.
Thomas played 40 games in the re-election side, finishing with 17 league goals which was decent in such a struggling side.
He was one of the few players kept on for the next season when John McGrath swept into Deepdale and effectively re-built the squad for £15,000.
Thomas fired 28 league and cup goals in 1986/87. His tally included three hat-tricks, the first against Halifax in the league as PNE hit back from 2-0 down.
Then he netted trebles against Bury and Chorley in the first two rounds of the FA Cup.
“It’s hard to think that one season we finished second bottom of the league and the next season we went up,” said Thomas.
“I would say 95 per cent of that turnaround was down to John McGrath.
“He brought in a lot of new players, played a sweeper system right the way through the club and we had a great season.
“There had been a few of us left from the season before, Gary Brazil, Bob Atkins and myself.
“We started the season quite well and things built from there.
“I scored a hat-trick in a 5-1 win over Bury in the first round of the FA Cup. We got Chorley in the next round and played at Blackburn’s Ewood Park ground.
“That one finished 0-0 and I should have scored with a header but put it wide because I’d almost started celebrating.
“In the replay at our place we won 5-0 and I got a hat-trick.
“We were drawn to play at Middlesbrough in the third round and I was hoping to score another hat-trick. I was lucky if I got three touches in that game let alone three goals! Fortunately Ronnie Hildersley stuck one in the top corner and we won 1-0.
“We played Newcastle away in the fourth round but John McGrath didn’t start me, he played Nigel Jemson instead. I got on for the last 10 minutes or so.”
Perhaps Thomas’ most memorable goal that season was in the 2-0 win against Tramere, PNE’s first game back at Deepdale since beating Orient at Brisbane Road to seal promotion.
Thomas said: “The ground was packed and near the end at 1-0, the referee blew for a free-kick. Some of the fans thought it was the final whistle and they started coming over the fences on to the pitch.
“We managed to get them off the pitch but there was no way they were going back over the fences, they watched from the track.
“Soon after that, Frank Worthington played a ball over the top for me to chase. I was in my own half when I started the run to meet it so I wasn’t offside.
“I ran clear and dinked it over the keeper for 2-0.
“The fans ran back on to the pitch and I was carried by them back to the centre circle! That was some night.
“We went away to Spain as a squad to celebrate at the end of the season.
“There were three or four times on the holiday that I walked home with Frank Worthington from a night out. I had to pinch myself that I was with a football legend who before that season I had only seen play on the television.”
Thomas had joined PNE from Lincoln City in 1985, linking-up with Brian Kidd who he had known from his time at Everton.
Kidd was No.2 to Tommy Booth at the time but would go on to have a stint as manager during the season.
When Kidd resigned, midfielder Jonathan Clark took over as caretaker manager and won his first five games in charge.
That run briefly offered hope that North End could avoid finishing in the bottom four and having to seek re-election.
“I wanted to come back to play in the North West, I just felt at the time it was the place to play football,” said Thomas.
“Brian Kidd got me here, he had been at Everton when I started my career with them.
“It didn’t work out for Tommy Booth or Kiddo and Jonathan Clark got the job when Kiddo resigned.
“We beat Southend the day after Jonathan got the job, then we went to Tranmere and won 3-2.
“Suddenly we knew how to win again, five victories in a row was some going.”
Thomas left North End after the promotion season, sold to Bolton for £35,000.
He then joined West Bromwich before a £50,000 move brought him back to PNE in February 1990.
That second spell wasn't as successful as the first it has to be said.
Said Thomas: “Les Chapman who had taken over from John McGrath by then, told Brian Talbot the West Brom manager that I would put 1,000 on the gate if I came back.
“I scored a few goals that season, one of them in a 1-0 win at Wigan which helped keep us up.
"Then a handful of games into the next season I broke my leg in a game at Bolton."
Thomas was out of action for 12 months and played on a month-to-month contract once back fit.
He scored PNE’s injury-time winner at Mansfield in the FA Cup in November 1991, a game shown live on BSkyB.
In March 1992 Thomas left to join Hartlepool United but his stay there was brief.
That summer he signed for Halifax Town, linking-up again with John McGrath. But his career effectively finished when he damaged a cruciate ligament.