6 January ~ Darren Ferguson's reign as Preston North End manager will be most memorable for its humiliating postscript, courtesy of his dad. Having provided players on loan, allowed PNE to train at Carrington while North End's facilities were frozen, and come to watch his son's team in action whenever he could, Sir Alex couldn't help make a fool of himself and his lad in the final scene of the play. Adrift at the bottom of the Championship, with 11 wins in his 45 league games in charge, Darren's humble record was indefensible. And yet still his dad made the snidest of gestures when Darren was sacked on December 28. He immediately called back the three United loanees.
Fergie Jr was up against it from the start, axed a year to the day since Preston inexplicably sacked the popular Alan Irvine. Ferguson was considered the man to take PNE upward by Trevor Hemmings, the reclusive multi-millionaire North End fan who, until last year had been a silent director and shareholder. Ferguson – our fifth Scottish manager out of the last six – was not exactly embraced by the Northenders but was excused for chopping and changing his team last spring as he had a look at everyone and decided who to keep. A flirtation with relegation put plenty of fans on edge but we pulled through unscathed.
Having gradually upped his share in the club and bailed them out month after month until he was owed about £12 million, Hemmings launched a takeover bid. He brought in Maurice Lindsay from Wigan as his Grim Reaper, slashing the wage bill from a staggering £11m (with turnover just £9m) in part one of a supposedly three-year plan to rescue and stabilise the club. Relegation was not a factor.
Last summer Ferguson oversaw a huge clearout, sending a host of top earners on loan until their contracts are up, among them striker Neil Mellor. Yet Ferguson spent his final few games with just one fit senior forward. He was accused from the start of being tactically naive. While he improved our attacking threat and made us more entertaining (we came from 4-1 down to win 6-4 at Elland Road), it came at a huge cost – we shipped three or more goals 14 times in his 23 league defeats. The three teams just above us each scored three times at Deepdale this season and the worst home record in the country pushed attendances below 10,000.
Ferguson eventually gave up on creator-in-chief Keith Treacy's defensive frailties and dropped star centre-back Sean St Ledger. Any manager who not only gets far less than the best from his players but leaves his biggest talents in the stand has surely failed. In his favour, Ferguson was the first North End manager in a decade to give opportunities to youth products – the midfield five in the excruciating derby defeat at Burnley aged 99 years between them – and we may yet be grateful for him launching the careers of Adam Barton, Danny Mayor et al.
But his case was hardly helped by Ian Holloway's miracles down the M55. Being the only major Lancashire club not in the Premier League in 2010 felt cruel, but most fans are realistic enough to know that we missed our chances to go up. Young fans seem set to experience their first relegation (the last was to the fourth division in 1993). Older fans like me will just be grateful for a 15-year upward adventure. Gavin Willacy