4 years ago, to this very day, Preston North End completed the best play-off campaign in English football history.
Just 2 weeks after the Colchester heartache, Simon Grayson led his troops to a 4-0 win against Swindon at Wembley, to secure a return to the Championship after 4 seasons away.
It was possibly the most deserved play-off win of all time, with North End pipped to 2nd place on the last day by an MK Dons side carried by an 18-year-old Dele Alli, who was to perform for England at Euro 2016 just 12 months later.
The 2014/15 League One season was a bit of a freak season, with Bristol City reaching 99 points, MK Dons 91, and PNE 89, 10 points ahead of 4th placed Swindon Town. Bristol City were perhaps the best team that League One had seen, Dele Alli the best player League One had seen, and North End the best 3rd placed team that League One had seen. In that way, it was fitting that PNE completed the trio of promotions from the best 3 teams in the league at Wembley in the play-off final. It would’ve been an absolute travesty had we not.
Our superiority over the other play-off sides was clear as day, with Simon Grayson’s side winning the 3 games by an aggregate of 8-0, the biggest aggregate win in play-off history, topped off at Wembley with a 4-0 win, the biggest winning margin in a play-off final in history.
Another record broken was Jermaine Beckford’s 6 goals over the 3 games, no player has scored more in a play-off campaign. He also became only the 3rd player to score a play-off final hat trick, and in the aftermath of the game, it was forgotten that all 3 goals were scored with his weaker left foot, surely the only player to have ever scored a weak foot hattrick at Wembley?
Joe Garner and Paul Huntington, the scorer of the 2 other goals, finished the season as League One’s top scorer and North End’s highest scoring defender in decades, and it was fitting that those 2 were to lead us to a historic couple of weeks. Hunts’ 9 goals that season, alongside Aden Flint’s 15, just sum up what a mad season it was. Chuck Dele Alli into the mix, the Joe Garner “sending off” at Port Vale, and North End’s highest points total in years, and it was a truly unprecedented season.
The campaign was North End’s 10th in the play-offs, and the 1st win out of those 10 attempts. However, we still hold the unwanted record of the most unsuccessful play-off campaigns with 9. We have been used to play-off heartache, so to end it in such emphatic fashion as we did was overwhelming, and still brings goosebumps to many fans today, 4 years on. The records don’t end there, with the 2014/15 League One play-off campaign being the highest scoring on record, with 21 goals in the 5 games.
The semi-final between Swindon and Sheffield United ended 7-6 on aggregate, another record, with the second leg ending 5-5, the highest scoring game ever seen in the play-offs. You get the picture, it was an incredible, record-breaking campaign, littered with drama and quality. Also, who could forget Beckford’s goal from halfway and the pitch invasion that followed? Absolute scenes.
As well as being literally record-breaking, I would argue that North End’s campaign was ‘the best’ on record. To recover from the desolation of the Colchester defeat, having been in the top 2 for most of the season, was an incredible measure of the team’s quality, determination and grit, with the squad full of very strong characters – Tom Clarke, Paul Huntington, Paul Gallagher, Joe Garner, Jermaine Beckford and Kevin Davies to name just a few. Add in that they were led by seasoned play-off campaigner, Simon Grayson, I suppose in hindsight, it was never really in doubt.
The toughest game was definitely the first leg away at Chesterfield, just a few days after being rock bottom after Colchester. The 20-point gap between the sides was, yep, another record, with no teams having ever been separated by such a distance before. In the end, the gulf in quality showed, but the first leg was the very definition of a banana skin. I was worried going into it, with memories of the 3-3 draw between the sides, with Chesterfield coming from 3-0 down to earn a draw. I was so numb going into the game, expecting the worst after experiencing the worst day of my life in Essex the week before.
North End went into the game with a steely determination, and after less than 10 minutes the nerves were settled with a trademark Beckford finish giving us the lead. No over celebrating from the players, just a dogged willingness to win and get the job done. Chesterfield came on strong and we rode our luck at times, but we managed (somehow) to keep a clean sheet and take the narrow victory back to Deepdale.
From then on, I was very confident. The second leg was as comfortable as a play-off game could be with the most memorable moment, as we previously mentioned, being Jermaine Beckford’s lob from around the halfway line, just 12 months on from Joe Garner’s wonder goal against Rotherham.
The pitch invasion that followed was an outpouring of emotion, 17-year-old me running onto the pitch and managing to touch Joe Garner, aloft on somebody’s arms. The sense of relief and outpouring of frustration was visible, Tom Clarke in particular living the moment and showing what a leader of men he was.
In the week leading up to the final, the press was handled professionally with Kevin Davies on media duties, using every cliché in the book and saying how focussed the players were, which proved to be true. Meanwhile, our Wiltshire counterparts had been given a Wembley stadium tour, posting selfies on Instagram and Twitter, with their socks and sliders on.
Swindon were a young team, coached by a young manager, and it showed. The preparations were chalk and cheese, and you got the feeling that Swindon were, quite simply, just happy to be there. At the point that I saw a picture of the Swindon squad posing on the Wembley turf, I knew promotion was won.
— Gorn (@gorn__) May 20, 2015
The final itself was surreal, one of the most comfortable wins I can remember. The tone was set in the first minute, with Paul Gallagher playing a simple ball over the top of the Swindon defence, something to test their nerves early on. There were rumours in the build-up that Swindon’s captain, Thompson, was going to miss out with a hamstring injury, so Gally showed all his nous and tested him, clearly not fit. Within 3 minutes, Beckford had scored, with Thompson limping off in the process, and from there, Swindon collapsed. This pretty much summed up Swindon’s naivety.
It was 2-0 within 15 minutes after John Welsh made that famous crunching tackle. Another Gallagher assist too as he provided for the unmarked Huntington to tap home. Swindon were all at sea and North End, simply a level above, wanted it more. Even after Hunts’ goal, there was still a feel of subdued anger coming through, Hunts and the players embracing with Grayson and the staff, very much a collective celebration.
On the stroke of half time, it was job done as Garner flicked on a goal kick to Beckford, who turned onto his weaker left foot and curled home. He added a fourth goal and his third, with another left-footed finish after he had been played through 1 on 1 after we regained possession on halfway. So many things summed up Swindon that day, and still overcommitting when 3-0 down at Wembley, against the most potent 1 on 1 striker at that level, was just another example.
So, North End completed a record-breaking play-off campaign with relative ease, the fans and players alike drinking in those golden final minutes, moments that nobody will ever forget and nobody can ever take away from any North Ender.
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PNE were simply too good not to get promoted that season, summed up by their sheer dominance in the play-off games, and their 89 points in the league. A truly astonishing reaction to a dark day away at Colchester that should never be underestimated. Up the whites!