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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Play Off Memories - Preston North End

Lakes looks back at his memories of supporting Preston North End in the end of season play-offs.

Davies in the dark: Leeds knocked out Preston in the 2006 semi finals

2001: A Space Odyssey. A classic film in which Preston North End did not get promoted. Instead it was Bolton who were victorious and went on to the promised lands - as Kubrick fans will remember quite lucidly.

Each member of the Bolton squad donned their spacesuits and were launched into the Premier League, never to return.

As Sam Allardyce's moustache floated off in zero-G, my tears were left to contemplate the stiff pull of gravity as they rolled down my cheeks and landed with a damp splash on my pull-out Lancashire Evening Post poster of David Healy and Jon Macken.

That is probably my clearest, most painful play-off memory, and it's not even the game which we had a chance of winning. Everyone knew Bolton would have too much in the tank.

But there was something about the fairytale: promoted as Champions of Division Two, devastating in Division One, the penalties at Deepdale, Trevor Francis in a huff. It looked like our promotion was written in the stars.

Nine years later, and it still hasn't happened.

It's been a record eight seasons in the play-offs for us, in all three divisions.

Starting in 1989, when my six-year-old face was contorted in disbelief and shock at the news we'd been beaten in the old third division play-off semi-finals by none other than Port Vale.

After that, it was a painful defeat to Wycombe Wanderers in a 4-2 play-off final humdinger at Wembley. Still no wins. Next came Bury a year later in the semis. Lost.

What then? Gillingham in the old Division Two semis in 1999. Our year. Only it wasn't. We lost again. Then came 2001 in what is now the Championship. BLAM, defeat. Which brings us back to how our tale began. But not where it ended.

Having narrowly missed out on the play-offs again during the season in which David Moyes left, it was down to a new manager to take on the promotion mantle: Billy Davies.

He represented what I firmly believe was our best chance of promotion from this level.

He built the fittest squad in the division, with the hardest work ethic, and what I believe was the best defence in the league. At one point, we only conceded something like seven goals in 23 games. Remarkable.

So to 2005. Victory over Derby in the semi-finals set up a showpiece final against West Ham - a team we'd already beaten twice in the league that season. There was no stopping us.

The press had written us off as a 'dirty' team - although the logic was questionable - and were clearly favouring a West Ham victory. This had to be our year, then.

I was at the Millennium Stadium on crutches, having torn my medial ligaments playing football the day before. I breezed to the top of the stadium using the escalators and took my seat on the half way line.

West Ham got underway and almost immediately, or so it felt, hit the post. I was nervous, and the players looked nervous too.

Half time came and it was still 0-0. I found myself in the match programme advertising Coca Cola's Win A Player competition and thought: "Maybe this is our year - and what a memento to keep."

There was a mock penalty shoot out between our two mascots. Harry Hammer was the victor, and my spirits sank a little lower.

West Ham ended Preston's Premier League dreams in the 2005 play-off final

I started to feel my bowels going and my back passage started to quiver at the prospect of 45 minutes of football and an £80 million prize at the end of it. Absolute torture.

Of course, Matt Hill went and slipped, didn't he? Bobby Zamora ghosted in at the far post. BANG. It was like a gunshot and I fell to the ground, tumbling across rows and rows of seats.

As I continued my inexorable descent, I saw the blurred faces and tears of Preston fans. A jester hat was being shredded by a man with a machete. A Billy Davies effigy was being stamped on and burned.

I became dizzy as each bone in my body broke. I hit the concrete at the side of the pitch, having fallen a great distance. Limp and dead.

Figuratively, of course. Really I was describing my emotional state through the animation of my physical body.

I was distraught and got lost trying to find the coach home. Imagine the jeers when I got on the coach, hobbling on crutches, having held everyone up for an hour. I was not popular, and it was not a pleasant ride back to Lancashire.

Someone called me a w*****. Someone was crying.

But 2006 was just around the corner and BLAM, we were back in the play-offs. This time it was Leeds in the semi-finals and we did a good job against them at Elland Road.

It was back to Deepdale with Billy Davies exclaiming: "Job Done!" His undoing. What followed was the most bizarre game I've been at.

Firstly, Brett Ormerod broke his leg under a horrible Leeds tackle. I heard the crack and scream. It was like someone biting into an apple very loudly. That did nothing to quell the passion. It was horrible to watch - limbs flying everywhere.

Billy had a breakdown. He put four strikers on up front, engineered the lights to go out at half time - allegedly - and had a bust up in the dressing room, spending the whole of half time sat on the bench looking broken in the dark.

It was the most bizarre sight - seeing him lit up by the flashes of the cameras, not knowing if the game was to be postponed or not. It completely killed the crowd off and the rest of the game didn't ever feel like ours. We lost again.

And then there was last season, 2009, in which we were beaten in the semis by a Sheffield United side who had the better of us from the start.

When I look back, though, it was 2001 and 2005 that hurt the most. Getting so close, only to fall so far, is the worst feeling in football. I hate the play-offs.

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