The Lilywhites went into the final game of the season needing a win against Derby and hoping relegation rivals Cardiff lost to champions West Ham in order for them to beat the drop.
Two goals from Alex Bruce ensured PNE kept their side of the bargain but Cardiff held out for a draw against the Hammers at Ninian Park.
It was cruel on North End, the players finding out on their return to the dressing room that they had gone down on goal difference.
Five days earlier, Preston had lost 3-1 at Deepdale to Swansea, that result clinching promotion for the Welsh side – they pipped Blackburn for third spot.
It took survival out of PNE’s hands and the Wednesday night visit to Derby was suddenly much more than a rearranged game after the final weekend of the campaign.
A sizeable following from Lancashire made the trip, swelling the crowd to 15,050.
The Derby fans were saying farewell to Roy McFarland after 16 years with the club, adding to the importance of the occasion.
Nobby Stiles made one change to the starting XI, John Anderson coming into the side in place of Francis Burns. Don O’Riordan was named on the bench.
It was the Rams who had the better of the first half play but they were held at bay by some decent defending from Mick Baxter and John Blackley.
North End came more into the contest after the interval, with Gordon Coleman having a fine game.
The deadlock was broken in the 71st minute when Stiles’ men took the lead.
Coleman swung over a cross from the right-wing which Derby keeper Roger Jones and McFarland left for each other to deal with.
It enabled Bruce to nip in and score from close range.
North End were ahead for 10 minutes before Derby pulled level. Goalkeeper Roy Tunks made a hash of dealing with a cross from Paul Emson, the ball falling for striker Dave Swindlehurst to score.
The visitors pushed forward looking to get their noses back in front and did so in the 88th minute.
Brian Taylor took a quick throw-in on the right to find Coleman.
On a night of keeping errors, Jones dropped Coleman’s cross and there was Bruce again to knock the ball over the line for his 15th goal of the season – a decent return for the striker who only made 29 starts.
Bruce’s double was enough to win the game but not to save them from being relegated.
A month later, North End sacked Stiles as manager, a decision it took them quite a few years to recover from.
They got through five managers before John McGrath arrived in 1986 to lead the club back to the third tier.
PNE: Tunks, Taylor, Baxter, Blackley, Anderson, Coleman, Haslegrave, Bell, Houston (O’Riordan), Elliott, Bruce.