Preston North End's victory and heartache on the same night at Derby County in May 1981

Preston North End's relegation from the Second Division 39 years ago today took two decades for the club to recover from.

Wednesday, 6th May 2020, 3:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 6th May 2020, 3:00 pm
Preston North End players Graham Bell, Steve Elliott and Don O'Riordan in the Baseball Ground dressing room after PNE were relegated on May 6, 1981

On May 6, 1981, the Lilywhites went to the Baseball Ground to face Derby County in their final game of the 1980/81 season.

To stay up, they had to beat the Rams and hope that Cardiff City lost to champions West Ham United on the same night.

Two goals from Alex Bruce gave North End a 2-1 win but Cardiff held the Hammers to a 0-0 draw to give them the point needed to stay up at PNE's expense.

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Preston's John Anderson challenges the Derby goalkeeper Roger Jones in the air

It was agony for Nobby Stiles' side and the supporters as a three-season stay in the second tier came to an end.

Not until 2000 - 19 years later - did North End return to that level of football.

In the meantime they had two spells in the Fourth Division, having to seek re-election in the 1985/86 season.

There were two promotions from the basement in 1986/87 and again in 1995/96, the second of those as North End properly found their feet under the stewardship of Baxi.

Alex Bruce (left) scores for Preston North End against Derby

Then in the 1999/2000 campaign, PNE returned to the second tier under David Moyes.

That agonising night at Derby in May 1981 came at the end of a season in which manager Stiles had worked on a shoestring budget.

Peter Sayer had been the only new arrival, with Peter Litchfield and Simon Westwell stepping-up from the reserves.

A run of nine league games without a run from late November through to the end of January left them chasing their tails.

Their form picked up slightly in February 1981, a 1-0 win over Chelsea at Deepdale a stand-out result.

Soon after came a four-match losing run.

In the last month of the season, North End pieced together a run of four games without defeat to raise hopes of an escape.

However, in the penultimate game of the season they were beaten 3-1 at Deepdale by Swansea who clinched promotion to the First Division that day.

That left PNE needing to beat Derby on the following Tuesday night and hope West Ham did them a favour against Cardiff.

At the Baseball Ground, the game was a stalemate until the 71st minute when Bruce scored.

Dave Swindlehurst quickly equalised for the home side before Bruce netted an 88th minute winner.

On their return to the dressing room, North End's players found out they had been relegated by reason of Cardiff's draw.

Stiles was sacked the following month and replaced with Tommy Docherty, the first of a number of poor decisions which dogged PNE for many seasons.