Lewis wings in for chance to create another parallel with Finney legend

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The Independent Football

It is Friday morning and the crowds are conspicuously absent from the National Football Museum. The only sound in the empty shop comes from the television set above the counter. The eye has just been drawn to a signed copy of the classic photograph which inspired the brilliant statue outside - of Tom Finney splashing up the right wing at a sodden Stamford Bridge in 1956 - when the man himself suddenly appears on the screen. "This is a great chance for us," Sir Tom says. "It's been such a long time since we were in the top division."

It is Friday morning and the crowds are conspicuously absent from the National Football Museum. The only sound in the empty shop comes from the television set above the counter. The eye has just been drawn to a signed copy of the classic photograph which inspired the brilliant statue outside - of Tom Finney splashing up the right wing at a sodden Stamford Bridge in 1956 - when the man himself suddenly appears on the screen. "This is a great chance for us," Sir Tom says. "It's been such a long time since we were in the top division."

It has indeed. Across the other side of the Sir Tom Finney Stand at Deepdale Preston's longing for top-flight football is immediately obvious. Every available item in the club shop - the PNE flags, the Sir Tom "Splash" T-shirts, the navy blue and white jester hats - is being devoured by an army of Preston North End fans.

Preston - Proud Preston, as they were known from the days of "The Invincibles", who achieved the Double in the first season of the Football League, 1888-89 - lost their foothold among the English game's élite the season after Sir Tom hung up his boots to concentrate on his plumbing business. Their last game in the old First Division was in April 1961, the month that Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

Fittingly, Sir Tom has been asked to lead out the latter-day Preston team, ahead of Billy Davies, the manager, before they attempt to bridge the 44-year gap in the Championship play-off final against West Ham United at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow afternoon. Preston - the city and the football club - could not be any prouder of its celebrated football son, according to Bill Shankly "the best player ever born". When it comes to the crunch in Cardiff, though, it will fall to the likes of a sun-burned son of California to put Preston back where they proudly once belonged.

Like Sir Tom, Eddie Lewis is a winger of the orthodox style. He plays on the left, where Sir Tom so often found himself on England duty, to accommodate the equally sublime talents of Stanley Matthews on the right. A graduate in sociology from UCLA, the University of California in Los Angeles, he is a native of Cerritos, a Los Angelean suburb that was also home to a young Tiger Woods and to Patricia Nixon, wife of Richard.

"I didn't know anything about Sir Tom and the history of Preston until I got here," Lewis says, taking a breather after morning training on the Deepdale pitch. "You don't really get a sense of it, coming from America, where there's obviously no tradition in the game. It's just in my time here that I've learned what this club is all about. I think in some ways it's made getting to the play-off final extra special.

"To be surrounded by the Preston fans, knowing what going up would mean to them, is unlike anything I've ever experienced. This is potentially going to change people's lives for ever, and that's a pretty cool thing to be part of. In some ways, it's probably the biggest game I've been involved in."

And Lewis has been involved in a pretty big game in his time. Three years ago he was a member of the United States team unlucky to lose to Germany and a Michael Ballack goal in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Ulsan.

That puts the Californian North Ender level with the club's president in terms of an international peak; Sir Tom was in the England team beaten by Uruguay in the quarter-finals of the 1954 World Cup in Basle, four years after playing in the side famously beaten by the United States in Belo Horizonte. What Lewis, like the majority of the Preston side Davies has transformed since succeeding Craig Brown as manager last September, lacks is experience of England's premier club division.

After moving to England from the San Jose Clash in 2000, he featured in the Fulham side that won the First Division championship but played just one game in the Premiership before falling out of favour with Jean Tigana. Lewis is out of contract next month and, by all accounts, Sunderland are prepared to give him another chance in the top-flight if Preston fail to graduate tomorrow.

Having been told his season was over when he underwent an appendectomy a month ago, however, the 31-year-old has already pushed through the pain barrier to help North End get within sight of the big league, producing a first-class display on the left flank in the 2-0 play-off semi-final home win against Derby.

"At the moment, there are more important things to focus on than my situation," Lewis says. "The kind of opportunity that we have now doesn't come along very easily. If you want your chance in the Premiership, now's when you've got to grab it."

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