Craig Salmon talks to former Preston North End striker Peter Higham. In part one, Higham discusses his goalscoring prowess as well as playing in one of PNE’s greatest teams
The eerie yet impressive sight of an empty Deepdale had Peter Higham momentarily lost for words.
Preston North End’s iconic and historic home has had quite the transformation since the days when Higham used to strut his stuff for the Lilywhites back in the 1950s.
Peering up at the towering stands overlooking the beautifully manicured playing surface, natural storyteller Higham soon found his voice again.
“Eeeeee, look at that,” he said pointing towards the pitch with a grin. “It weren’t like that in my day; It was just mud!”
Having been invited back this week to have another look at his old stomping ground, the memories soon started to flood back for the bright-as-a-button 86-year-old, who celebrates his birthday in November.
With a nod to the Invincibles Stand, Higham added: “Over there, that’s where the tunnel was where we used to run out.
“We used to train at Deepdale back then and by habit we would jog anti-clockwise around the pitch to warm-up.
“I always remember one day, we came out from the dressing rooms and Jimmy Milne, our trainer, said,’Right lads, we’re going have a bit of a change today; I want you to run clockwise around the pitch; so the opposite way to what you’re used to’.
“We all looked at each other and just fell about laughing.
“What did it matter which way we ran around the pitch?”
Wigan-born Higham, who served in the Royal Marines as a commando during his national service, joined Preston in the summer of 1952 at the age of 21 after leaving Bolton Wanderers – his path blocked to the first-team at Burnden Park by England great Nat Lofthouse.
A quick-thinking striker, who was sharp, nimble and deceptively good in the air, Higham can perhaps count himself rather unfortunate that he is not more than just a mere footnote in the rich history of Preston.
With the legendary Tom Finney the jewel in the crown, North End were one of the best teams in the country when Higham was pushing for a first-team call-up.
However, despite an admirable scoring record, which saw him notch 10 goals from just 15 first-team appearances, he was sold to Nottingham Forest for £8,000 in 1955.
“I left Bolton after two years and went to Preston,” said Higham, who lives in Southport with his wife, preston girl Jo.
“I scored a ton of goals in the reserves and A team for Bolton, but I never played a game in the first team. They had Nat Lofthouse and in those days it was a set team.
“You didn’t have any subs back then and they didn’t really give youth a chance.
“To be fair when I came to Preston – that was a set team, but when I joined I just thought to myself, ‘I’m joining a club which has got the great Tom Finney’.
“Even in those days everybody just knew about Finney.He had this aura about him.
“I will always remember his first words to me.
“He said, ‘Peter, welcome to the club. You must be a good player because Preston want to sign you as a professional’.
“He then said, ‘One thing I want to say to you is have respect on the pitch; respect the officials and respect your opponents; We’re all human, we all make mistakes but do not retaliate in words or actions particularly with the officials’.
“What Sir Tom said has always stuck in my mind.
“Later on in my career, I used to recount what Sir Tom had said to me to younger players. I think some of the top players of today could do with showing a bit more respect like Sir Tom used to do.
“Finney used to get kicked all over by opposition full-backs, but I never heard him swear or saw him retaliate.
“He always used to say to me, ‘If they’re kicking you, then that means they are frightened of you’.
“He would never say anything to the full-back, he would just dazzle them with his play.”
With a team containing household names such as Australian great Joe Marston, Scotland internationals Tommy Docherty and Willie Cunningham alongside Finney, North End almost achieved sporting immortality during the 1950s.
Runners-up in the First Division twice during the decade, they also reached the FA Cup Final in 1954, losing 3-2 to West Bromwich Albion.
“Preston were one of the best in the country –my first season at the club, the team nearly won the First Division title, but finished second to Arsenal,” Higham added.
Higham did not feature at all during that 1952-53 campaign as PNE finished an agonising second to the Gunners by virtue of goal average, and managed just one start away at Portsmouth the following year.
However, his goalscoring prowess in the reserves was finally rewarded during the 1954-55 campaign when he was handed a run in the team instead of Charlie Wayman.
“I had a couple of seasons in the reserves,” he said.
“In those days in ’52,’53, ’54, particularly when we came up against big clubs like Wolves, we would be getting 15,000 people coming to watch us.
“It was the Central League and it was a brilliant league, really competitive.
“I think I played 88 games for the reserves and scored 90 goals.
“That is better than a goal a game and I just could not stop scoring.
“Eventually, because I was having such a good run, they put me in the first team.
“Preston had a centre forward called Charlie Wayman. Now, he was a very good player was Charlie, but he was having a bit of a rough time and so he got dropped.
“I’ll always remember my first game at Deepdale for the first team was against Sheffield Wednesday.
“I got a hat-trick and we won 6-0.”
Higham failed to notch in the next game at Old Trafford in a 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, but he was back on the goal trail in the next two games, scoring a dramatic late equaliser against Wolves in a 3-3 draw at Deepdale and then notching twice away at Aston Villa in a 3-1 win.
“I’ll always remember the goal against Wolves because I came up against Billy Wright.
“He was their centre half and they had a terrific team.
“Billy played 100-odd times for England; he was the captain but I had an absolute blinding game against him.
“They were winning 3-0 at half-time, but we came back to draw. I was fouled inside the area and Jimmy Baxter scored the penalty, Bobby Foster got another to make it 3-2.
“There was five minutes to go and Billy Wright had the ball just outside the penalty area.
“I robbed him of the ball; didn’t foul him; and I hit this ball and I’ve never struck a sweeter shot.
“It went past the keeper into the far corner.
“People still talk to me about that game. It was a great game against top rate opponents.”
Higham went on to score a further four goals in 10 more appearances that season, but the writing was on the wall for him when PNE boss Frank Hill swooped for Tommy Thompson that summer.
“I scored 10 goals in 14 appearances that season in the First Division,” Higham said.
“If you do that nowadays, you’re a world beater.”
NEXT WEEK: ‘My life-long friendship with fellow North Ender Eric Jones, a modelling career and success at Nottingham Forest’ – read part two of the Peter Higham story in next Saturday’s Post.