The Big Interview: Vernon Allatt

Vernon Allatt thought he'd drawn his last breath on a bone-chilling January night in 1988 and faced death just half a mile from the sanctuary of his family home.

The sickening sight of colliding with a brickwall at 50mph is all Vernon can recall, as seconds later, his car disentegrates with the force of a small incendiary bomb.

"My heart had stopped beating – I was actually dead at the side of the road, until a complete stranger came along and re-started my heart," said the former Preston North End centre-forward.

"I had broken my fibula and tibula, I had punctured my lung, my ribs were smashed to pieces, and I was drowning in my own blood.

"Yet I owed my life to this man, a nightclub bouncer, who is like a brother to me now. If it wasn't for him, who started my heart again, I wouldn't by enjoying life today. It was a miracle I survived."

Vernon recalls: "I'd left work early that night to go and console a good mate of mine whose friend had sadly taken his own life.

"The accident happened on the way home. The first thing I knew was waking up in the Intensive Care Unit at Stafford Hospital.

"I had an incredibly strong will to live, but I really thought I was going to die. I felt my life ebbing away.

"Your bodily functions just slowly run down, and life literally ebbs out of you.

"When I saw the wreckage of the car months later you would never have believed that anybody could have got out alive.

"I was in hospital for five months, and the doctors thought I'd never survive.

"I did, though, and when I came out I knew I was so grateful to this guy who had resuscitated me at the side of the road, and then drove off when the ambulance arrived.

"I was curious too, and I wanted to find out who he was. I put adverts in the local newspaper and in shops appealing for that person to get in touch so I could thank him.

"Then, one night at the gymnasium, I was doing some weights and this guy asked me about the scars on my leg.

"I told him about the accident and he said 'White Ford Escort 2000, a prison officer from Hednesford, ex-footballer'. He just said: 'I'm the guy who brought you back to life'.

"I just felt weak and overcome with raw emotion, because I'd been looking for this guy for years. It turned out that he was a passenger in a car, and the driver didn't want to stop because he had no car tax and was frightened of getting in trouble with the police.

"Thank God they did because he saved my life. If he'd driven on, then I'd be dead now. I do believe in fate and I was astonishingly lucky to live."

Three years before that terrible accident, when just months before he had turned his back on the professional game to join the Prison Service, the gangling centre-forward had emerged as a cult hero during Preston's darkest hour, the never-to-be-forgotten 1985-86 campaign.

With no Deepdale floodlights and gates plummeting to an all-time low, humiliation followed humiliation for the league's first double winners who were forced to go cap-in-hand to the Football League they had helped build a century before.

Off the field, North End's biggest rival was the bank manager as the club faced the very real threat of closure.

Deepdale's top earner raked in a cool 220-a-week, while for the 4,000 surviving fans it became a curious crusade to follow one of the worst clubs in England from Torquay to Leyton Orient and back.

Incredibly, only 768 fans bothered to turn up for a Freight Rover Trophy tie against Bury at Deepdale, while two months before, Preston's lowest league gate, 2,007, saw them crumble to defeat against Scunthorpe on Bonfire Night 1985.

Loyal fans launched a "floodlight appeal" badge, Preston's annual meeting was called off when burst pipes left the function room under two feet of water and a 7-3 FA Cup exit at Walsall proved a day of shame before the agony of re-election months later.

Vernon hit four goals in 21 North End starts – including one out of the Ruud van Nistelrooy school of finishing against Mansfield on a sunny Easter Saturday at Field Mill – but it was never going to propel 'Big Vern' into the Deepdale hall of goalscoring fame.

It was Allatt's enduring courage and indomitable spirit during the dark days of the Fourth Division wilderness years that won the fans over while others waved the white flag of surrender.

"I'm a very proud man and it still bothers me to this day when I think back to that season at Preston, because I so desperately wanted to do well for that club.

"I get my North End scrapbooks out and think if only I could have done a little bit better for Preston.

"I talk to my wife about it, because it is my biggest regret in football that I didn't show those great fans the real Vernon Allatt.

"Although a lot of Preston fans were kind to me, I felt singled out for extra stick at times. I don't make any excuses for my performances for Preston – I just wish my time there could have proved more fruitful.

"If there is any way that I could put it right then I would do.

"I always went to play for Preston with the best intentions, not just to draw a wage and play about.

"When I signed for Preston from Crewe I really thought I'd made it. To be associated with a club like Preston made me proud.

"I did get some awful slatings there, but hopefully Preston fans saw me as a trier in very difficult circumstances

"They were strange days. Sometimes Deepdale was so quiet you could hear fans having conversations on the Pavilion Paddock or the Fulwood End, about what they'd done on a Friday night or where they were going on holiday.

"It was like playing in an empty tunnel and some of the lads would dread running out in front of 3,000 fans in that giant stadium. It could mentally destroy you and some of them it did. People think about football as glamour and big money, but believe me most of my career was a battle."

Allatt, who also had spells with Halifax, Rochdale and Crewe, signed for Stockport County when John McGrath took charge at Deepdale, before hanging up his boots after a season with Dutch Club Hercules.

"I didn't want to leave Deepdale, but I was despondent and at Stockport I played under the best manager of my career, Colin Murphy.

"He was as hard as nails and verbally aggressive towards the players. I remember losing an FA Cup tie to a non-league club and at the final whistle none of the players wanted to come off the pitch because they were petrified of Colin's wrath.

"I played up front with the 'Chesterfield warhorse', an old striker called Ernie Moss.

"I got really fit and scored plenty of goals, but most of all Colin's coaching made me mentally stronger and more able to survive in the professional game.

"As a striker I came up against some really unscrupulous centre-halves and at first I couldn't deal with it. Halifax was my first club and one day we played Crewe and they had a colossus of a defender called Bob Scott.

"He was a huge man-mountain with a bushy beard and hands like shovels. Crewe fans reckoned they used to wheel him on to the pitch at Gresty Road.

"Anyway, he scared the life out of me, because I hadn't learned my craft. It was a man against a boy and the man won. He'd say: 'Touch that ball, son, and I'll break your legs'.

"He really did hurt me and I remember George Kirkby (Halifax manager) telling me in front of the players that I was gutless. I sat in the boot-room at Halifax crying my eyes out after the game. A lot of it was anger that I had let the team down and I vowed it would never happen again.

"A few years later I was playing for Rochdale and we had Crewe at Spotland.

"When I saw Bob Scott's name on the team-sheet all I wanted to do that day was to destroy him.

"I was like a man possessed. I had so much pent-up aggression in me. I just had to erase that memory and prove something to myself.

"The first tackle I made, I caught him in the back with my knee and said: 'Remember me, Bob? It's pay-back time'.

"I absolutely murdered him and they took him off with 20 minutes left.

"The following season, Dario Gradi signed me. He told me that Bob Scott had told him to go out and sign this kid called Vernon Allatt because I was scared of nobody.

"Bob became one of my best friends at Crewe after that and he runs a nightclub in Wrexham now."

Vernon admits his career in the Prison Service, where he mainly looks after prisoners serving life-terms, is a rewarding one.

"Football taught me a lot about life, and I believe that if you are up front and honest and set a good example then people respond to you.

"I love the work and I get a lot of the prisoners writing to me and thanking me for the way I've helped them deal with their sentence and move on.

"You are dealing with a lot of personal agony but you just try and pass on some of your life skills to them.

"I have to be thankful for so much in my life though. I've achieved so much since I left football and recovered from the accident.

"I was a member of the team that won the television game show series – Fort Boyard – hosted by Melinda Messenger and that was a proud moment. I also have a wonderful family.

"And while I look back on my playing days with great pride, my only regret was that I didn't do myself justice for those fans at Preston North End."