The Big Interview: Mike Elwiss

The ink was barely dry on Mike Elwiss' Deepdale contract when, a couple of days later, he sat patiently listening to Bobby Charlton's whispering team talk, deep inside Carlisle United's Brunton Park.

Elwiss glanced to his right, and there was England's 1966 hero Nobby Stiles lacing his boots, while to his left David Sadler, a European Cup winner with Manchester United six years earlier, sat in silence.

"I'd spent half the night pacing the floor with nerves before that game, but I'll never forget that surreal few minutes before kick-off at Carlisle," recalled Elwiss.

"Preston's manager, the great Bobby Charlton, was reading the teams out and his arms and hands were shaking with nerves.

"Bobby was an absolute legend, an English hero from '66, and I was thinking 'I'm a 19-year-old kid from Doncaster, how can the great Bobby Charlton be nervous talking to me?' I was absolutely gobsmacked.

"Bobby was just one of the lads really, and probably not mean enough to be a manager. He was just a genuinely nice man.

"Eight years before, I was at school watching him pick up the World Cup on television. It was a dream really.

"I scored twice on my debut at Carlisle and we drew 2-2. Although we were relegated that season (1973-74), it started a very special love affair with Preston North End."

Mike Elwiss was a classical English striker; he possessed brute strength, loved the fire and brimstone of physical battle, but most of all his explosive striking partnership with Alex Bruce has endured in the Deepdale archives since the dynamic duo blitzed their way to 121 goals between them in 142 league and cup starts.

Elwiss and Bruce set up more smash and grab raids than Ronnie Biggs and Dick Turpin. It was a telepathic understanding, Elwiss scoring 52 and Bruce, the goal-poacher, 69 in that golden three-year spell from 1975-78.

Deepdale fans always loved Elwiss' whole-hearted approach and honest endeavour, and it is a measure of the man when he modestly wants to talk about his team-mates rather than his own achievements in front of goal.

"It was a very special relationship and to this day we remain good friends, but everybody contributed," said Elwiss.

"Alex is a great guy, and there was always a strong bond and togetherness on the field.

"We just complemented each other and it was uncanny at times. Our blend was just right, which is rare in football.

"When Preston fans talk to me about Elwiss and Bruce it makes me incredibly proud.

"It was all about winning and scoring goals for Preston then. It was a wonderful life and I enjoyed every second.

"To succeed as a striker you have to be ruthless. Coming second was nothing. I had to win and I was the world's worst loser, but I always gave my all for Preston North End.

"I never wanted to look back on my career and say 'If only I'd done more'. I trained correctly and worked hard. I was tremendously dedicated, so I look back on my Preston days with great pride.

"Football was a different world then. We'd go to Bond's Chippy near the ground for lunch or the Lowthorpe Road store for a sandwich, but these days the modern player is viurtually carried on to the pitch."

Bruce, who smashed 171 goals for the Lilywhites, recalls the partnership with pride.

"Playing football with Mike Elwiss was a dream, and it felt like my all my birthday's had come at once," said Bruce.

"In all those games I played with Mick I never saw his head drop once. He was as brave as a lion and a fantastic all-round footballer.

"It was very instinctive. Sometimes I'd just stand there on the edge of the six-yard box and I knew Mike would deliver.

"We were both in our prime then and there was a spell for a year or so when I felt nothing could go wrong. It was like walking on water and Mick was the best striking partner I ever played with."

Just sitting with Elwiss, talking and drinking tea at his Wooplumpton home, does more to rekindle the old enthusiasm for football than half a dozen afternoons spent watching the incoherent energy of so much of today's game.

Elwiss roars with laughter when he remembers those special Deepdale days, where he played under football legends Charlton, Harry Catterick and Stiles.

"Bobby Charlton had a coach at Deepdale called Norman Bodell, who meant well but he was a sergeant major type and a stickler for discipline.

"For months he had been threatening to show us a special coaching film, and one day we were told to report to the West Stand after training to watch it.

"All the lads shuffled into the room, groaning and yawning, so Mel Holden and myself thought we'd try and liven things up a bit.

"We got two white coats, a couple of torches and an ice cream box. We nipped out to the newsagents and bought crisps, sweets and ice lollies.

"The coaching film was whirring away in the darkness, when suddenly I flicked the switch, shouting 'choc-ices, crisps, pop-corn, lemonade'.

"Norman was foaming at the mouth and his face turned to thunder, but all the lads just dissolved into laughter.

"Bobby Charlton, who had a tremendous sense of humour, was so weak with laughter he was lying on the floor, and Nobby was giggling so much his glasses steamed up!

"We had a kit man called George Waugh, who was a great guy and took his duties very seriously.

"One day all the lads decided to send him a letter, typed out on official Football Association notepaper, telling George he had been chosen to go to China with the England Under-20 squad, but first he had to have injections for Yellow Fever and all sorts of tropical diseases.

"We let it run for a couple of days until George had told everybody, and when he found it was a hoax he went up the wall. George, though, soon saw the funny side of it and that summed up the special atmosphere at Deepdale then.

"Nobby Stiles was the nicest guy I ever met in the game and the best manager. He was a very honest and humble man and you would never have guessed he had achieved so much in the game, because there was no edge to him. He meant a great deal to me and still does.

"Nobby would always enjoy a laugh, sometimes at his expense. His sight wasn't the best and one day he wandered into Deepdale with odd shoes on. One was black and the other brown.

"He was giving the team talk and all the lads were just killing themselves laughing. When he realised what they were laughing about he loved it too.

"Nobby always allowed you to play your natural game and was an inspiration to me. I have always believed it is 90% player – and it has got to come from you.

"Out on the pitch it is your decision and players can take coaches too seriously. Some coaches stifle players, and they want to knock the identity out of your game, but Nobby was never like that."

Elwiss was captain and North End's player of the season when Preston were promoted to the old Division Two in 1978.

An incredible goalkeeping show from Welsh international Dai Davies saw promotion rivals Peterborough held to a 0-0 draw at Wrexham and North End went up on goal average.

"I was physically drained at the end of that season, because we had strived for so much, but it was also my proudest moment in football.

"I had captained the club I loved to promotion and there was tremendous elation. The scenes on the flag market at the promotion party a few days later will live me forever."

Two months on – and with Aston Villa, Coventry and Norwich chasing his signature – Elwiss signed for Terry Venables at Crystal Palace.

"I was on holiday in Spain with my brother when North End told me Palace were in.

"The next thing I knew, Terry Venables had flown out to Spain to sign me. He said if I wasn't happy with anything he'd rip the contract up, but I knew it was the right time.

"It was a despeartely hard decision to leave North End and a sad day, but it was all about pure ambition.

"I was 24 and impatient to get on, I suppose. I'd played there with Preston several times and Palace was a big club then, with average gates of 25 to 30,000.

"There seemed to be a massive future ahead with Terry in charge and players like Kenny Sansom and Vince Hilaire coming through. Terry was very young to be a manager, but he had real presence and was bright and astute tactically.

"It just felt right and I backed my own judgment. When Palace were promoted to Division One I felt they were really going places."

But Elwiss' agony began when a serious knee injury in a league game at Burnley left the Deepdale favourite desperately trying to his rescue his career.

"I got caught with a bad tackle at Turf Moor and I immediately knew something was seriously wrong.

"Strangely, I was in the team a couple of weeks later, scoring a real cracker against West Ham on Match of the Day, another versus Sheffield United and a flying header against Newcastle, but deep down I knew I had a major problem.

"I had five operations in three years but none of them could get my knee right. In the end I lost faith in the surgeons and the whole process was physically and mentally destroying."

Elwiss returned to Deepdale on loan for the final two months of the 1979-80 campaign – scoring twice in a 2-1 win at Leicester – and, typically, signing off with a goal for North End in their last game of the season at Cambridge.

"It was wonderful to come back to Preston, but I was only half the player I was when I left. I couldn't compete properly and my all-round game had gone.

"It wasn't really a surprise when the doc told me it was over. I was 27 and I knew there was a lot more for me to achieve.

"It was traumatic to be told that my career was finished but I had prepared myself for it."

Elwiss, who married Keith Leeming's daughter Olive, returned to Preston to work in the former Deepdale chairman's dairy business when he was forced to quit football.

He takes special pride in his 20-year-old daughter Hannah, who has represented England at hockey and athletics, and now runs for Trafford Harriers.

"My proudest moment was seeing Hannah compete for England, and it eclipsed anything I did in my football career.

"I watch every North End game at Deepdale, but I'd still rather be playing.

"They were incredibly happy and enjoyable times at Preston. I say that from the heart because the whole experience was special.

"I never wanted to miss a second of playing for Preston North End and sometimes I played when I was injured.

"Those fantastic fans at Preston were always superb to me and it was a truly memorable time in my life. In any walk of life you have to give it your best – and I always did for Preston."