Playoff campaigns for Preston North End seem a long time ago. Instead, they've been looking over their shoulder. Until now.
A founder member of the Football League. The first ever Double Winners. The original “Invincibles”. Sir Tom Finney. The days of Preston North End being a powerhouse of English football are long, long gone.
Instead, recent history has seen re-election, relegation and playoff failures. The club is shrouded in history and heartbreak, but that isn't to say that Preston don't deserve to be where they are right now.
Six managers since the start of the 2007/08 season, winding up orders and dwindling crowds have set the tone for a turbulent few years at Deepdale. The relegation to League One in 2011 was duly deserved for years of overspending an terrible management both on and off the field, and Preston found themselves in the third tier for the first time since they won the old Division Two in 2000 under the stewardship of David Moyes.
Moyes and Preston have moved in the different directions since their divorce in 2002. Moyes took Preston from the Division Two title straight to the Division One playoff final, only to be outclassed by Sam Allardyce's Bolton, and has since moved up to Everton and now with Manchester United. Meanwhile, Preston – but for a couple of successful seasons under Billy Davies and an arguably fluky run to the playoffs under Alan Irvine in 2009 – it's been a gradual downward spiral for the Lilywhites.
From Darren Ferguson to Phil Brown and Graham Westley, the club failed with three successive appointments. All came in with big ideas. All came in talking the talk. All were fired within 13 months for being unable to walk the walk. Each manager oversaw huge upheavals as they looked to bring in their own men, but with decreasing budgets, the quality would never match the expectation of the fans.
Ultimately, the turning point came with Westley. A vastly successful manager with Stevenage having earned back-to-back promotions from non-league to the top of League One, the brash and unpopular Westley appeared to be the man to steady the ship and get Preston back into the Championship. But it was almost doomed from the beginning, and it's hard to really determine why. Some will point to Westley being a Londoner and not understanding the Northern nature but from the get go, it was tough going. Westley was sacked after a year and a month in charge, and left with a win percentage of just 26%.
The club was on its knees. Westley had saddled the club with a number of below par players and Preston were hurtling towards another relegation. Yet, somehow, they managed to land one of the best League One managers in recent years – Simon Grayson. Grayson, the anti-Westley with his softly spoken and laid back approach, had earned three promotions from the third tier since 2007 having guided Blackpool, Leeds United and Huddersfield into the Championship.
Many fans were pessimistic at the thought of another ex-Blackpool player taking charge at Deepdale – especially after the disasters that were Paul Simpson and Phil Brown – but having kept North End afloat last season, Grayson set out his stall to add a fourth promotion to his CV. The marquee signing of Kevin Davies showed League One that Preston meant business this season, and the increased involvement of millionaire owner Trevor Hemmings has resulted in other big signings like Neil Kilkenny, Paul Gallagher and Declan Rudd.
Gone are the days of apathy surrounding the club. The crowds are slowly but surely returning to Deepdale, despite some patchy home form. The Lilywhites sit fourth in the League One table, just two points off the automatic promotion places with a game in hand. With just three league defeats so far this term and one of the best away records in England with only one loss on the road this term, confidence is high as Preston seek promotion.
It finally seems that the darkness around the club has subsided and that's a testament to the job that Grayson, Hemmings and even Peter Ridsdale have done over the past 11 months. With a trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers on the horizon, Preston can lay down a marker to their promotion rivals as they head into the second half of the season.
This is the rebirth of one of England's most historic clubs – and it's about time.
image: © bonnett