COMMENTARY : Preston's pride in the future

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The Independent Online
Proud Preston. That was their nickname. Inaugural winners of the Football League, first winners of the Double. Only, in recent years, there has not been much to be proud of. The only thing Preston North End have won in four decades is the Third Division title 25 years ago.

In recent years Deepdale has been more ashamed than proud. First they covered the pitch with plastic grass, then John Beck, the arch exponent of hoof-and-chase, had them playing ersatz football. Tom Finney, now the club's president, must have felt an urge to turn his head away as he watched.

On Saturday night, however, he would have been puffing his chest out with pride. Preston's 2-0 win at Leyton Orient effectively ensured promotion and put them on course for the Third Division title.

It is not just promotion which has Preston feeling proud again, it is the manner of it. While Gary Peters, Beck's former assistant and successor, has developed a style more in keeping with Preston's heritage the club itself has become a part of the community again.

The rejuvenation came from another Preston institution, Baxi, an employee- owned boilermaking company which has been around even longer than the football club. Its chief executive is Bryan Gray who, two years ago, was seeking a way for the company to put something back into the community.

"Someone said, `Why don't you sponsor Preston? It seemed the ideal opportunity," he said. "It was run-down but with potential. We bought it in September '94. Our aim was to rebuild the ground and the team. The objective is the First Division."

With that in mind a 25,000-seat stadium is planned based on Sampdoria's impressive Luigi Ferraris. The first stage, the 8,000-seat Tom Finney Stand, opened to acclaim in March - where some would have picked out the letters PNE in the seats Preston have incorporated an image of Finney. To underline the town's close-knit nature the "Preston plumber's" own family firm installed the heating and ventilation.

Attendances have since topped 12,000, drawn both by the facilities, and the team. Gary Bennett's pounds 200,000 deadline signing from Tranmere brought spending close to pounds 1m on players - a huge sum at this level. The results are obvious. There is an experienced spine running through the side and, in Andy Saville and Simon Wilkinson, a forward pairing which would be a handful in the Second Division.

Saville scored twice on Saturday, taking his season's total to 28. The first followed a break down the left, Saville stooping to head in Wilkinson's cross. The second was more fortuitous, but just as expertly taken. Goalkeeper Peter Caldwell mis-kicked under a challenge from Wilkinson and Saville chipped in from 30 yards.

Another penny on the share price, perhaps? In keeping with Preston's ambitions there has been a floatation. "It has been very successful," said Gray. "Commercial Union have just bought five per cent, which shows people are investing because they believe in what we are doing, not just because they are Preston fans."

Baxi still hold the majority, 65 per cent and have put in more than pounds 2m. "Baxi should not lose any money on it," said Gray. "We have taken the risk and made the effort but the club is already paying its way.

"Certain clubs have potential. Preston is a football town, we have won cups and championships. There is a population of 250,000 in Preston and the surrounding area. We have got the base that Wimbledon, or Norwich, will never have. A lot of lapsed supporters go to watch Blackburn as they can see Premiership football, but if we were in the First Division they would watch us.

"A lot of third division clubs do not have the vision and resources to plan ahead. They have dreams but you have to say to them, `Stop dreaming and start doing'."

Read it and weep, Orient fans. Since Barry Hearn took over at Brisbane Road there has been a lot of talk but little visible achievement. The team are heading for their worst ever league placing and local gratitude at Hearn saving the club is turning to resentment.

There are signs of progress commercially, the amount of advertising and sponsorship in the programme is surely down to Hearn's influence. The public address must be one of the best in the country while the latest, extraordinary scheme, is a national lottery syndicate, paid for by the fans, with wins split 50-50 between club and fans.

But attendances have slipped from more than 8,000 to less than 3,000 (Saturday's was doubled by the Preston contingent). The ambitious "Orient 2,000" plan, incorporating an arts centre, cinema, sports hall, bowls club and health centre appears to be no more than a felt-tipped plan on the ticket office wall.

The team play a neat passing game, centred on Shaun Brooks and Glenn Cockerill, but are weak where it matters, in the two boxes. There is, says Hearn, no money for transfers and manager Pat Holland will be scouring the retained lists. Already Alvin Martin has been sounded out, but, Holland said, "We need six of seven experienced lads, where are they going to come from? Preston are ambitious. How ambitious are we?"

When asked if his team, listening to Preston's celebrations, were saying, "That will be us next year", he laughed wryly and replied: "Many of them won't be here next year."

More pertinent will have been Hearn's thoughts, as he watched Preston fans celebrating on the pitch and exchanged handshakes with them. Was he thinking, "With a bit of investment, that could be us?"

Goals: Saville (11) 0-1; Saville (61) 0-2.

Leyton Orient (3-5-2): Caldwell; Kelly, McCarthy, Arnott; Hendon, Chapman (Lakin, 73), Cockerill, Brooks, Austin (Baker, 62); West, Berry. Substitute not used: Warren.

Preston North End (4-4-2): Vaughan; Sparrow, Moyes, Wilcox, Barrick; Gage, Davey, Bryson, Kilbane (Bennett, 89); Saville, Wilkinson. Substitutes not used: Lucas (gk), Kidd. Referee: F Stretton (Nottingham).

Man of the match: Saville.

Attendance: 5,170.