Last week we brought you our interview with 1987 Player of the Year Gary Brazil and today our focus is on his strike partner in that promotion campaign John Thomas, who took the award in 1986.
John’s award came in his first season at Deepdale following a move from Lincoln City which was orchestrated by PNE assistant manager Brian Kidd who had worked with John at Everton and Bolton Wanderers.
Despite his individual accolade and the 18 goals he scored, it was to be a very disappointing season for the club as they had to apply for re-election to the Football League following a 23rd placed finish in the Fourth Division.
John told PNE.Com: “I did score I think it was against Peterborough the first home game and they beat us I think was it four something.
“The first match everybody’s looking forward to it. We had a good pre-season but things didn’t click at all no and then off the field we were absolutely skint weren’t we. It went worse to worse as the season went on.
“Tommy [Booth] ended up getting the sack and Brian Kidd took over I think for probably about three or four games and then he ended up leaving. I think with a disagreement with the board and then Jonathan Clark ended up taking over. I didn’t realise it was about ten games in charge I thought it was only two or three myself.
“On a personal thing it was good getting the Player of the Year but not with the club applying for re-election. I’d have thought at the time there was no way they were going to kick Preston out but you’re hoping anyway that they won’t.”
PNE were voted to remain in the Football League and then in that summer came big changes as John McGrath took over ahead of what was to be a very different season for the club.
John Thomas said: “I can’t remember how I got to know he’d got the job but he turned things round completely. He brought some good players in. He got Les Chapman as assistant and Les is a fantastic man, a good thing for a good cop bad cop situation with him.
“I’m still friendly with Les now. I still speak to him once every six to eight weeks or something like that and then he brought Oshor Williams, big Sam [Allardyce]. You know good pros who had done it all before and played at some decent teams in higher divisions.
“Again he changed the system. We had a sweeper system which was played all through the club so if you had to move up from the reserves to the first team you knew exactly how to play. I remember we were playing in pre-season and that’s all we did: practise it, practise it practise it. And luckily enough it worked out.
“We had some decent players and the good thing what he did as well was he brought Gary Brazil off the wing inside with myself and we got a few goals between us. We had a decent partnership.”
On a personal goalscoring note, John got off to a fantastic start in the 1986/87 season, finding the back of the net seven times in the first five league games.
He said: “I remember missing a chance at Tranmere first game of the season. I know we drew 1-1 but I remember missing a chance and I remember saying in the dressing room I hope we don’t miss out on a point or two to get promotion type of thing.
“The place was buzzing he’d got some good players in. Bob Atkins who I thought John McGrath was probably going to let go but then he realised when he’d seen him in a reserve match and promoted to him to the first team straight away. You knew how good Bob was playing in that sweeper system because he had two good feet Bob did.
“He brought Alex Jones in. We had a decent side and I thought we played some decent stuff. We had a fantastic team spirit which helps a lot on the pitch. I know some people would say the plastic pitch helped, well I think it did in a sense that teams came with a bit of a negative attitude to start with so it was as if we were one nil up already before a ball had been kicked. We just kicked on from there.”
As part of his hot streak in front of goal, John scored three on a memorable night at Deepdale as the Lilywhites came from two goals down to take all three points against Halifax Town.
John remembered: “Yeah I was lucky enough to get three hattricks that season and I think I’ve still got two of the balls at home in the house somewhere. I know my wife doesn’t like football too much so they’re not sort of on show in the front room if you know what I mean but I was happy I get the hattricks.
“The one against Halifax we were 2-0 down and I think the three goals probably came in about the last 20 minutes of the game or something like that so that was a great night. It was always nice playing night games, it meant the defenders couldn’t see me as much!”
That season saw PNE reach the fourth round of the FA Cup with some memorable ties along the way including a 17,000 crowd packed inside Deepdale for the visit of Chorley and trips to both Middlesbrough and Newcastle United.
“We played Chorley at Blackburn and I think Gary Brazil scored in like the first few minutes, but the goal got disallowed. I do remember me having a chance with about five minutes to go.
“I was heading it and I was celebrating at the same time because I thought I’d scored like so instead of heading properly I headed it past the other post. As I said I was turning to celebrate; I thought this was a winner in the last few minutes of the game.
“We got the replay at Deepdale and I think we got a goal early on if I remember rightly. One of our defenders headed it and I just ran onto it bottom corner type of thing. Then Oshor Williams scored and I think Gary Brazil got a goal. I remember I went down the left wing and crossed for Gary to score.
“It was a good night, great always scoring at the Kop end. One of my goals down that end was a penalty that night but yeah we went on to the third round and ended up playing a great game up at Middlesbrough that Ronnie [Hildersley] scored a tremendous goal, probably about 35 yards or something.”
After defeat then to Newcastle in the fourth round, PNE continued to kick on in the league and they sealed promotion to the Third Division with four games still to play as they won 2-1 away at Leyton Orient.
John reminisced: “We must have taken three thousand fans down there which was brilliant considering it’s such a long distance and we ended up getting the win down there which got us promotion which was a fantastic day.
“All the fans were brilliant that day. The players we really enjoyed ourselves and had a great time in the dressing room after the match celebrating but then there’s nothing better than to come back on the Tuesday night at Deepdale and celebrate in front of everybody.
“I think it was Tranmere we played and I remember coming out and the crowd was really buzzing. We went round the pitch as a lap of honour to start with then we went on to play the game. I think it was 2-0 that we beat them.
“I can remember the fans thought the referee was blowing for the end of the match so loads of them come over the fence because there was fences around in them days and the fans came over so we had to usher them back off the pitch so instead of getting back they were just standing around with about two or three minutes left.
“I always thought it was Frank [Worthington] who’d put me through on the halfway line but I believe it was Gary Brazil who’d put me through and I’ve gone just with the keeper to beat from the halfway line down to the Kop and I’ve just chipped it over him.
“Then all the fans obviously just filled onto the pitch and I remember Ronnie Moore was trying to get the match abandoned. I mean there was two minutes left of the game! I remember the fans were on one side of the penalty area and I got pushed across to the other side and I ended up getting carried back to the halfway line.
“That game always sticks in my mind because we’d already got promotion on the Saturday then in front of your own fans everybody’s celebrating – it was just a great night.”
John was a real favourite of the Deepdale faithful and it was a shock to many when he was then let go at the end of that season to join up with Bolton Wanderers, but he would go on to re-join PNE in 1990.
John contributed some vital goals to help PNE avoid the drop back to the Fourth division before disaster struck in the next campaign against Bolton Wanderers.
“Within 30 seconds I broke my leg. Yeah I remember it off a throw-in; David Burke one of the Bolton lads was taking a throw-in. I read it and headed it and then I went to play the ball to Graham Shaw and Steve Thompson came in and tackled me who’s a coach at Preston now. To be honest it wasn’t the best of tackles I think a lot of people would say that.
“There’s never a good time to break your leg but I must have been 32 then so you’re out for 12 months can’t do a thing really, just body and weights. You’re not running until 12 months when the specialist gives you the all clear and that so really it’s another 12 months to get fit so once you’ve broken your leg I think it’s near enough two years before you get back.”
That would end up being the start of the end really in terms of John’s time in PR1, though he did return briefly after recovering from injury.
He said: “My contract was up and I know the club kept me on a monthly contract once it was up. I got back and I had no worries because I thought if I don’t go in for any tackles you know a big percentage of my game’s gone like so it didn’t bother me I still went in for them.
“I got into the team was playing for the reserves but I ended up in the first team and I remember going down to Mansfield in the cup and we won live on Sky and I got the only goal. Interviewed after the match and good old Ron Atkinson calling me the ‘late Lineker’ of the lower divisions.
“But the club did offer me a contract and it learned me a thing in life. I just thought well on principle I’m not signing because I would have been playing in the team if I hadn’t broken my leg and doing well and scoring goals so I turned the contract down but what I should have done really was ‘hang on John you’ve been out twelve months sign the contract’.
“I did say to them you know I’ll accept the contract but they took it away from me. It was hard at the time but it’s learned me in life don’t just think something on principle.
“I always got on with the fans and I know some players had better skill than me but I’ve got a bit more determination than some players. Everybody’s got something different. I had great times; I probably played the best football of my career at Preston. It was tremendous.”
If you want to see all the interviews that have been conducted so far, including Aiden McGeady, Youl Mawene and Richard Cresswell, or can’t wait for the upcoming ones with the likes of Joe Garner or Greg Cunningham, click here for our Player of the Year section of the official PNE website.