Preston North End's first experience of the play-offs came against Port Vale on May 22, 1989

Preston North End got their first taste of the play-offs when they met Port Vale at Deepdale 31 years ago today.

By Dave Seddon
Friday, 22nd May 2020, 3:00 pm
Port Vale fans are forced to evacuate the Town End at Deepdale and come on to the pitch because of a small fire during the play-off game
Port Vale fans are forced to evacuate the Town End at Deepdale and come on to the pitch because of a small fire during the play-off game

It was a lively introduction too, with the first leg packed with incident on and off the field of play.

On it, North End and Vale fought out an entertaining clash, Nigel Jemson giving the hosts a first-half lead before Robbie Earle levelled.

In the second half there was a nine-minute stoppage in play when a small fire started at the back of the Town End holding 3,000 visiting fans.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Nigel Jemson goes close for Preston North End in the play-off semi-final first leg against Port Vale at Deepdale in May 1989

Many were evacuated on to the pitch while the fire, which was caused by some paper being set alight, was put out.

This came just a month after the Hillsborough disaster so no chances were being taken with safety.

This was the third season that the play-offs had taken place in the Football League.

They weren’t quite in the same format as they are nowadays.

PNE eight-back Neil Williams sees a shot blocked by a Port Vale defender

The first two seasons had involved sides at the top and bottom of the divisions.

In 1989, it was changed just to involve clubs chasing promotion but the final was still a two-legged affair.

It was in 1990 that the finals were taken to Wembley for a one-off game.

PNE landed a semi-final tie with Vale after finishing sixth in the Third Division. They had ended the season unbeaten in six games – three wins followed by three draws.

PNE striker Nigel Jemson challenges for the ball in the second leg with Port Vale at Vale Park

That had followed a wobble in which they had lost three games and drawn one in late March and early April, putting their top-six credentials in doubt.

Vale had finished in third place, pipped to promotion by Sheffield United on goal difference – Wolves had gone up as champions.

A season-best attendance of 14,321 was at Deepdale for the Monday night clash.

Kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes because of queues at the turnstiles.

North End's Brian Mooney in action against Port Vale in the second leg

Warrington referee Joe Worrall was in charge of the game – two days earlier he had refereed the FA Cup final between Liverpool and Everton.

North End started the game very well, Jemson seeing an early shot held under the bar by Vale keeper Mark Grew.

Tony Ellis then forced Grew into a fine save before John McGrath’s side took a 15th-minute lead.

Jemson, who had returned to Preston on loan from Nottingham Forest, met a through ball to race clear of the Vale defence.

His first shot was parried by Grew but came straight back to the teenager who toe-poked into the net.

Further chances came the way of Ellis and Jemson, with Brian Mooney also just failing to connect with a Jemson cross in front of goal. Vale came back strongly in the second half although they could have been 2-0 down soon after half-time when Ellis headed straight at Grew from a Jemson centre.

The non-playing PNE players watch on from the dug out area during the play-off second leg at Vale Park

North End failing to put their crosses away came back to haunt them when Vale equalised in the 67th minute.

A fine move involving Ray Walker, John Jeffers and Darren Beckford was finished by Earle’s close-range header.

On the Thursday that week, PNE headed to Burslem for the second leg. They wore red socks with their yellow away kit as a mark of respect to the Liverpool fans who had lost their lives at Hillsborough.

The 3,500 travelling Preston fans made the trip in optimistic mood but it was not to be their night – a feeling to be repeated in the play-offs over and over again.

Darren Beckford scored a hat-trick for the Valiants, the first of his treble coming in the 21st minute.

North End soon levelled, Mark Patterson sweeping a superb left-foot finish into the roof of the net in front of the travelling fans from Mooney’s pull-back.

Lilywhites keeper David Brown saved a penalty from Walker just past the half-hour mark, diving to tip it against the bar.

Early in the second half, Jeffers set up Beckford for his second goal and the striker’s deflected shot 14 minutes from time made it 3-1 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate.

Mark Patterson goes up for a header in PNE's play-off semi-final second leg at Vale Park