Few clubs can be held responsible for the rebirth of a club, but Gavin Willacy believes Preston would not be where they are now without the Town End, which even enjoyed a moment of life after death
Most readers probably have no idea what the Town End at Deepdale is. It’s now known as the Alan Kelly Town End, a steep modern stand with the face of Preston’s record appearance-maker usually covered up by season-ticket holders’ bums. Although the fans chose to name the stand after Kelly – a Republic of Ireland keeper who played 447 times for the club in the 1960s and 1970s – it is only in the last decade that the Town End has become an integral part of North End folklore.
While cinder steps are seen in the background of many shots of Tom Finney and co, the 1930s terrace was rather dull: a shallow shelf with a roof that started low but rose high. Behind lay wasteland, burger vans and trench-like toilets, bordered by an alleyway renowned for graffiti, huge potholes and thugs looking for a ruck. From the late 1970s segregation saw away fans packed into the Town End and Preston regulars scattered across the sweeping curves and Alice In Wonderland stairs and tunnels of the rapidly crumbling Kop.
Predictably, that gave the Town End a focal point, so much so that the livelier element of North End’s support moved to the West Stand paddock, renamed it “Crazy Corner” and spent most of each match watching the visitors across the fences rather than the dire action on the pitch. Derby victory against Blackpool in 1988 was celebrated by a six-a-side crossbar being launched on to the plastic pitch and several missiles hurled into the Town End at helpless visitors. The riot outside was even more predictable.
Unlike the Kop – or Fulwood End – the Town End’s shape made a decent away following look like a Roman army and the roof helped them sound magnificent. The sight of a few thousand Stoke or Burnley fans bouncing up and down after scoring made our hearts ache. When I scored a screamer into the Town End goal from 40 yards (we had hired the pitch for my 21st birthday), it was to the empty Kop that I ran to celebrate. The Town End did not belong to us. But in March 1992, with the team struggling for survival on crowds of 3,500, the PNE Independent Supporters’ Association persuaded the club to let North End fans return to the Town End for a night game against Swansea. Within a couple of years the move became permanent and, with the help of the otherwise justifiably derided manager John Beck, the Town End became the beating heart of Deepdale. North End fans packed it, even if the rest of the ground was almost empty. The fans started a band there, balloons were released, huge flags raised and Beck got the players to warm up wearing “I’m A Townender” T-shirts. PNE were alive again.
It was the start of a relatively golden era. In May 1994, David Moyes scored in our dramatic play-off semi-final against Torquay, with the extra-time winner causing thousands to pour on to the condemned plastic pitch and rip it up. A year later, there was on-loan David Beckham’s glorious free-kick against Fulham – described in a PNE fanzine as “curling so much that, if it wasn’t for the net, it would have hit him on the back of the head”. Then, with the West Stand closed as the new Deepdale grew, a rammed Town End was treated to a string of Andy Saville goals as North End won the Third Division championship.
The Town End finally closed four years ago, but it lived on. A couple of months later, with only seconds left of the Division One play-off second leg and Birmingham heading to the Millennium Stadium, Stan Lazaridis shot goalwards at the Town End, where just a couple of builders stood in hard hats among the JCBs and mounds of earth. The ball hit the post and rebounded straight to North End’s Rob Edwards, who broke upfield and set up Mark Rankine’s astonishing equaliser. The pink sky above the city-centre spires and towers had never looked so beautiful.
An hour later, Paul McKenna struck the penalty that took us to Cardiff, to within a win of the Premiership. One wall in the new stand has a huge print of the players arm in arm, watching him do it, the Town End ruins behind them. Even if Trevor Francis had got his wish and had the penalties taken at the empty end, the gods would not have allowed City to ruin our moment.
From WSC 206 April 2004. What was happening this month