Preston North End: History men ride again

Simpson calls on proud Preston to recreate past glories as his old club enter the fortress
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The Independent Football

The weight of history hangs heavily on Preston North End, and the FA Cup features strongly in it. In the National Football Museum adjacent to Deepdale, with a statue of Sir Tom Finney in the foyer, Preston have their own section, with the Cup to the fore.

The 1889 team known as The Invincibles earned that tag for completing the Double, not just for remaining unbeaten while winning the first Football League championship; a few old-timers attending this afternoon's tie with Manchester City may remember the 1938 win, with George Mutch's penalty in the last minute of the final; and rather more will doubtless recall the 3-2 Wembley defeats by West Bromwich Albion and West Ham respectively in 1954 and 1964 - indeed, the latter date is commemorated these days in the club's premium-rate telephone number.

But the current manager, Paul Simpson, was not born until two years after that, the month that England won the World Cup, and as a bright young manager in the mould of his predecessors David Moyes and Billy Davies he is naturally more concerned with the future. "We have a fantastic history here, but I want this group to make our own history," he says.

Simpson appeared for seven clubs as an exciting left-winger, starting at 16 with today's opponents and finishing in the demanding role of player-manager down in the basement with two others, Rochdale and his native Carlisle. "A fantastic education and grounding," he calls that, "getting stuck in and doing almost anything. Rochdale was the toughest 10 months of my whole life. You'd start the day just looking for a piece of ground to train on. Sometimes we'd take the warm-up kit home and wash it ourselves, so the players didn't have to wear sweaty, wet T-shirts the next day."

He resigned after being told to sack one of his staff following a run of bad results, but after successive promotions with Carlisle he was an obvious choice to succeed Davies, who left Preston last summer believing that two play-off finals were as far as the club were likely to go on gates of 14,000. Yet under Simpson they were briefly top of the Championship this season and remain in the play-off places once again, having resisted the temptation to sell their jewel in the crown, the England Under-21 striker David Nugent.

Nugent, a Scouser and self-confessed "massive Everton fan", scored a spectacular individual goal to beat Crystal Palace in the fourth round and was the subject of a £6 million offer from Sheffield United last month. That would have paid for the proposed fourth and last new stand at lopsided Deepdale, taking the capacity to 24,000, but the club chairman, Derek Shaw, argues: "What's worth more, promotion to the Premiership and a £50m prize, or selling off a lad who may get you there? We understand David has a right to go to the Premier League and it would be wrong for us to keep standing in his way, but we want him to help us get there."

The same sort of argument applies to Simpson, of whom the chairman says: "We know cream rises to the top in this industry, but Paul has a five-year contract with us and is doing a job here. He's the calmest football manager I've ever met. I don't think David Moyes would mind me saying that if we got beat, you'd leave it 48 hours before you gave him a ring. But you can ring Paul.

"It stuck in my mind that when he went to Carlisle to take that job on when they were going absolutely nowhere, he moved his whole family up there and had the confidence in his own ability. He's fantastic to work with."

Like Simpson, Nugent was recruited from the lower divisions (Bury in his case) as a hungry young man with potential, who would not break the bank. "You have two types of Championship club," Shaw says. "I read that Birmingham have a £41m turnover; ours is £7m. We have to find young talent, raw talent and bring them in on our wage structure." The BBC's television fee for this afternoon's game is therefore more than welcome, with the additional possibility of more money from a replay, if not advancement into the quarter-final stage.

Modest crowds or not, Deepdale has become a fortress that has been ransacked by only six visitors in the past three seasons. Manchester City are one of the many Premiership sides with a particularly poor away record this season, in their case comprising 12 goals scored in 15 games, including a defeat at Chesterfield. "They've had a couple of bad results but every team gets that at that level," Simpson said. "I believe it's about us this weekend. We're expecting a full house here and everything is geared up for a great afternoon, but it will only be truly memorable if we win and progress.

"The FA Cup is the best competition in the world domestically and we want to stay involved. I don't believe it will be a distraction from the League. If we lose, it could possibly have a negative effect by denting confidence; but if we win, that will help going into the next League fixture by giving everybody a boost."

Including, of course, Simpson; with or without beating his old club, he must be a short price to become their next manager. But proud Preston have new ambition to place alongside their history. As their chairman puts it: "It's been 50 years since we were in the top flight. It's time we got ourselves back there."